Life as a Dog

updated 11/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

NEARLY FROM THE MOMENT ELIZABETH Marshall Thomas met Misha, a 2-year-old Siberian husky left in her care by a vacationing friend back in 1969, she knew that this dog was special. Each night, Misha would jump Thomas's fence to explore the streets of Cambridge, Mass., and nearby Boston, and Thomas would receive complaints—some from as far away as six miles—about the canny canine that was violating the leash law. Someone else might have tied Misha up, but Thomas got on her bicycle and began following him. Misha's rovings, she discovered, covered a 130-square-mile area, yet somehow he always made it home. "How did he know to do that?" she asks, still amazed by his navigational skills. "How did he get through that traffic?"

Thomas never found a satisfactory answer to all her questions. But her quest for an explanation of canine intelligence—and what dogs really want—is at the heart of her surprise bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs (Houghton Mifflin), an engaging portrait of the many dogs she has known and loved over the last quarter century. "I didn't know the book would go whoosh" Thomas, 62, says. "I just thought a lot of people would get it." And they have. "Ms. Thomas says: 'I would like to know what the world looks like to a dog,' " wrote author Jeffrey Masson in The New York Times. "And she comes closer to this than any writer so far."

Critics, though, have accused Thomas of runaway anthropomorphism—of projecting human attributes onto animal behavior. But Thomas says her conclusions (based on at least 100,000 hours of observation of her five male and six female dogs, spanning several generations) are perfectly obvious. Thomas doesn't train her canines. Instead she lets them do their own thing and then waits to see what happens. Watching Misha wander Boston's back streets for some two years, she learned that dogs aren't driven only by the need for food and sex but also by a never-ending quest to establish rank in the strict social hierarchy of the canine world. "Misha would meet a dog, and they would circle each other, and the other dog would quickly see that Misha was dominant," she says. "Then he'd go on to the next." (Misha would go out of his way not to meet a bigger dog.)

But being top dog isn't everything. From the instant Misha was introduced to Thomas's household, he was smitten with Maria, her own husky. Even after Misha returned to his owners, he'd still visit daily, and the happy couple soon began roaming the streets together and later had pups. "People are perfectly glad to accept the idea that dogs love us, so they must be able to love each other," says Thomas. "When Misha first saw Maria, I saw that love. They'd kiss each other and sleep side by side. They rejoiced when they were together and mourned when they were apart. If that isn't love, I don't know what is."

Family bonds have also been important to Thomas, who grew up in Cambridge. After graduating from high school, her mother (now an anthropologist) and father (a founder of the engineering firm Raytheon) decided to study the Kalahari bushmen of South-West Africa, and Thomas joined them that summer. While studying at Radcliffe, where she graduated with a degree in English in 1954, Thomas continued to return to Africa.

Even her marriage to Stephen Thomas in 1956 and the subsequent birth of her children Stephanie, now 36, and Ramsay, 34—did not stop her from studying tribal culture, about which she eventually wrote two books. The family moved from Cambridge to Virginia and later to Peterborough, N.H., where Stephen worked importing Japanese technology in the oil industry.

During the '70s, Thomas also went to Canada's Baffin Island to study wolves, earned a master's degree in education and taught English. The couple eventually moved back to Peterborough, where she and Stephen, now 61, moved into the farmhouse her parents had built in 1935.

Through it all, Thomas never stopped observing her dogs—and their pups, some of whom she watched their entire lives from the moment they were born on her own bed. "Dogs are a window on the natural world," she says, surrounded by Sundog, Misty and Pearl, her current representatives of the species. "You can look at your dog and see that it's thinking and has strong feelings. And if it does, so do wolves. And if wolves do, so do elephants. People aren't the only beings that think and feel."

TOBY KAHN in Peterborough

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