Ah, the life of an Italian street dog

Beach tag

Street dogs have all the fun. Or so it appeared when I watched four dogs splashing in the sea and playing tag along a beach in Sicily. I wasn’t in Italy to study canine behavior. Though, as it turned out, it was hard not to.

Small dogs darted underfoot as my daughter and I walked the narrow streets. A scruffy sheep dog snuggled into the dirt of a tree bed as we sipped cappuccinos at an outside café. We were passed by a few pooches riding shotgun on their owners’ scooters, noses lifted to snatch passing scents.

At the beach, one pup was obviously the play instigator. He had brown merle hair on top and a concrete grey belly. He nipped at the others’ necks and enticed them toward the surf. When his playmates’ enthusiasm began to wane, he circled around to bite their heels until they picked up the chase. A big yellow lab mix called the timeouts. Hearing a short throaty growl from him, the others would back off. One by one they plopped onto the sand to rest as if someone had hit a pause button.

I was struck by their joy — and their rules. The dogs understood how rough they could tussle, which pup would be content to follow the others, and which dog called the shots. It’s clear there were right and wrong ways to behave, and they knew them. Play unfairly, and the group will ostracize you. Get a little testy, and things might escalate to fighting.

I later read that non-human primates are pretty savvy about keeping the peace in their social groups. Research in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 2005 noted that 90 percent of animals’ social interactions lean toward cooperation, not competition. I want to believe the percentage for people is at least that high.

But on that particular sunny day on the Mediterranean, I was not having profound thoughts about the human race. I was happy seeing silly dogs at play.

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