Jane Goodall, Rusty and Me

05/14/2015 12:14 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

Jane Goodall had no experience with chimpanzees before she set out on her lifetime's mission of studying them and advocating for them, but she was well versed in the rudiments of animal behavior. "I had had a marvelous teacher in animal behavior throughout my childhood - my dog, Rusty," she recalls.

Rusty taught young Jane that dogs remember and think about absent objects, for instance a ball tossed from an upstairs window that he could not see and could fetch only by figuring out a series of strategic moves inside the house and then outdoors. Rusty had a sense of justice that drove him to acknowledge his own bad behavior but not to accept Jane's occasional lapses into irritation or unfairness. He was clever at performing tricks and enjoyed being togged out in pajamas. But if anyone laughed at his attire, Rusty stalked off, trailing his garments behind him.

The most important lesson Rusty taught Jane was to ignore contemporary scientists, who denied that animals had individual characters, emotions and brainpower. Instead, she named her chimpanzee subjects - Fifi! Flo! David Greybeard! - and documented and interpreted their behavior and activities in ways that ultimately changed the way science would come to understand animals. Her vision and her methods, once denounced as the scientific sin of anthropomorphism, were gradually accepted into the canons of scientific research and ultimately, adopted as the gold standard.

When I conceived my book Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash, Goodall's revolutionary scientific work had established writing about animals as individuals as a legitimate pursuit and not a sentimental conceit. Thanks to her, those of us who live with and love them have no need to prove that dogs feel joy, love, jealousy and fear, or suffer pain they express in clearly recognizable ways. We know, too, that many of their behaviors so closely resemble our own that we easily identify them. Like the humans they live with, dogs can be noble, loyal and empathetic but also greedy, cunning, ingratiating, and so on.

As a writer who loves them, my goal was to give the dogs in my life their own unique voices. In the narrative of each dog's life story, I would not be "his master's voice" but rather the human interpreter at the other end of the leash.

When my dog Joey, an English bulldog, became my confidant during a marital crisis, I knew that he grasped the intensity if not the cause of my unhappiness. Sometimes, when I hugged him and wept onto his hefty shoulder, he'd lean against me as if he were grieving for me and offering me comfort. But later on, after I gave birth to my son, Joey expressed his displeasure at the squalling intruder by pooping outside the nursery door - right in front of me. Soon, though, he embraced the little newcomer as another creature to love, and never again felt the need to rebuke me for (as he saw it) ignoring him.

Decades later, my beagle-mix, Bonzi, came into my life burdened by a difficult past. He and two female puppies had been rescued from an abusive owner who was later convicted of cruelty and neglect. The puppies were soon adopted. Bonzi, however, remained in the shelter much longer and became notorious for escaping as often as he could and then sprinting into the cat room where the staff would find him nuzzling and licking the kittens.

Even if I hadn't been told about those puppies and kittens, I would have known that Bonzi loves baby animals, though I could not have explained what inspired his passion for them. For the past ten years I've seen him in the dog park, eagerly greeting puppies and playing with them with tenderness and patience. Bonzi's persona as Nanny Dog is in marked contrast to how he stridently challenges big, scary dogs. Almost certainly they remind him of the big, scary dog who long ago, before he was rescued, tormented him and the helpless puppies.

As for Rusty, whether learning tricks in record time or slinking away from mocking observers in his pajamas, he remains the great teacher of animal behavior. He is the dog who inspired his beloved Jane Goodall to rewrite the canons of science by listening to and giving voice to the creatures at the other end of the leash.