If you ask any dog owner if dogs think, 100 per cent of them will say yes.
I would agree.
Of course dogs think, living things – even fish – wouldn’t survive many minutes on this earth if they didn’t think. But beyond that conventional belief, there is not much common agreement or understanding on how they think or what they think.
I’ve been writing about dogs for many years now, and I am honestly appalled at all the junk online about what is going on in the minds of dogs. In our rush to love and emotionalize them, we are turning them into mystics, energy-senders, the angels and cherubs of the animal world, supernatural spirits who float through time and live forever.
It’s not for me to say all of those things aren’t true, how could I know. But in this world of fluid truth, I like to stick to what I like to call facts.
I’m planning to explore this subject here on my blog and also every week for a while on my radio show (Wednesdays, one to three p.m., WBTMAM1370).
People tell me all the time how their dogs mourn and grieve, although I have never witnessed it.
They tell me all the time how their dogs were obviously abused, even though their dogs can’t tell them.
They tell me how unhappy their dogs are to be left alone, how jealous their dogs will be if they pet my dogs (they don’t know that envy is not a dog trait, but a very human one.) They tell me how their dogs have so much anxiety when they have to go to work that they must medicate them with antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills.
I have never in my life had a dog who suffered from separation anxiety.
I wonder if this is might be because I don’t believe in it. More than 300,000 dogs in America are now on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. For many thousands of years, dogs didn’t need anti-depressants. Why now?
I think it’s more likely that the reason is that we are dumping all of our shit onto them because they can’t protest or complain. I am always drawn to the idea dogs as partners until I realize that they are totally dependent on us for every single thing they need to survive.
That doesn’t sound like an equal relationship to me.
On my radio show “Talking To Animals” I’ve launched what I hope will be a continuing discussion about dog dreams and dog consciousness. I will be upfront about where I am coming from. I believe in science and I believe in listening to people who do their research and have a certain accountability about their findings before they make sweeping and all-encompassing statements about the truth about dogs.
It’s a free country, people can say and think what they want, but I like to back up my statements with whatever facts I can muster. I think the people listening or calling deserve no less.
All of us hope that we can learn what our dogs know and what they think.
People are always telling me what their dogs think, even when it is apparent that they couldn’t possibly know what their dogs think. There is something about dog love that brings out fanaticism and absolutism in some people, and a good deal of emotionalizing. The Boomers are passing into history but their attitudes about children are spreading out into the animal world.
We get the dogs we need.
The major obstacle we face, of course, is that we are human and they are not. We can only think and reason and feel like a human does. The experience of animals is totally different from ours, it is alien to us, and in many ways, unfathomable.
They can’t know how we think, and we can’t know how they think.
We have no reliable reference points that allow us much certainty behind the behavior of dogs. We can only guess and reason in human words and feelings, because that’s all we have to reason with. I can’t tell you what my dog is thinking any more than I can tell you what those bats are thinking as they fly through my attic.
Within those boundaries, there is a lot of communicating, at least for me. The epidemic emotionalizing of dogs is not good for them, or, I think, for us. Sorting out the truth takes time and thought, and yes, even some research.
I believe the key to learning is accepting what I can’t know and don’t know. In the animal world, the rarest words ever spoken are “I don’t know.” It goes through my head all of the time.
Having said that, there are some things that the most knowledgeable among us believe we can say and do know about how the minds of dogs work.
There are all kinds of ideas about the minds of dogs and about their consciousness. But certain scientific facts – yes, I do believe in science much more than I believe in the opinions on social media – can be and are agreed upon when it comes to the thinking of dogs, writes author Stanley Coren a psychologist and author (How Dogs Think).
Coren is my favorite and most trusted thinker on the subject.
What follows is his list and my list combined about what those largely agreed to facts are:
- Dogs sense the world and take information from it.
- Dogs learn and adjust their behavior.
- Dogs have memories and the ability to problem solve.
- Early experiences with their mothers or in the litter shapes the behavior of the adult dog.
- Dogs have emotions, they just don’t have all of our emotions.
- Individual dogs have distinct personalities, different breeds have different temperaments and psychologies.
- Social interactions like play and life with humans are very important to dogs.
- Dogs do communicate with one another and with humans, they talk and they learn and they listen.
When I think about what dogs think, I try to separate what I want and need them to think and what they might be thinking. Dogs have simpler brains than we do, and they lead simpler lives. I’m not sure how much thinking dogs really need to do to get food and shelter and some activity. Darwin believed that intelligence and consciousness are evolutionary, they evolve with need.
And I do notice that with each passing year, fragmented and disconnected humans really need dogs to have a very wide range of human-like emotions, and all kinds of deep thought. The line between our ideas about dogs and are ideas about children are converging rapidly. Just listen.
The best and most compelling research I’ve read suggests that dogs have movies of the mind in their heads, they are believed by biologists to think much like autistic children, through a series of movies that reflect their lives and genetic history. Remember, they don’t have words, so they could not possibly comprehend ideas like death or wealth or love in the ways that we do.
People often tell me that their dogs love them unconditionally.
But try starving them or beating them or screaming at them all day, you might find that love is quite conditional. Even though we often like to see it as more complicated, dogs love the people who feed and care for them. And when if they need to move as millions of dogs do each year, they love the next people who feed and care for them just about as much, give or take.
This is not a cynical view of dogs, this is why I love them. Because they are not like us. It helps me to think about what dogs almost surely don’t think about.
Do they perceive a wider world beyond their lives? Do they see life in the same way we do? What can we sense that they can’t, and what can they sense that we can’t? Are there memories shorter or longer than ours?
What role does intellect play in their lives, and does their intellect decline as ours does? Can dogs understand time and beauty? How can we better comprehend the many ways dogs get us to love them and care for them and spend enormous amounts of money on them, when we are busily driving most animal species off of the planet as quickly and thoroughly as our greedy leaders can? Is temperament the same thing as personality in dogs, or is it different?
One biologist said he believes dogs are really just simple but efficient computers with fur. Their natural lives, he says, revolve around food, a place to sleep, shelter from the rain and sex. If they can’t have natural lives, then people will do.
So there is much to think about and much to talk about if we can open ourselves up and acknowledge how little we really do know about their minds.
I’ll be writing about this very good subject here on the blog and on Talking To Animals, Wednesday, one to three p.m. Let me know what you think: 801 442-1010 or 866 406-9286. It’s your show. Come on by. You can also e-mail me your question and comments any time: firstname.lastname@example.org.