Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Minding Dogs/dogs minds

I've been mulling something. Two somethings, actually. And since the latest blizzard has me housebound, I figured this was as good a time as any to try to put those thoughts into some sort of order.

I notice my dogs making assumptions quite often, in ways that mirror behavior I've observed in my children or my friends, or, if I look in the mirror, myself. There are two concepts on my mind, both of which seem to hold some much deeper implications about the nature of self-concepts. Let me try to sketch it out.

My thoughts started down this path as I've been comparing Elatha's versus Brianne's versus Star's behavior in the morning. The bedroom was always Star's exclusive domain but since his passing the other dogs take turns (my allergist insists that I only have one dog in the bedroom at a time...he would actually prefer zero dogs, but we compromise...I tell him there's only one at a time because that's what he wants to hear and I don't think the Pomeranian on my pillow counts...he's not a "real" dog anyhow). Star always knew when I was actually leaving the bedroom in the morning and after an initial "good morning" greeting he'd curl up until I was ready to head out; nothing moved but his eyes, which were always on me. I could make the bed or not make the bed, I could brush my teeth with the electric or manual toothbrush, I could put my shoes on or run downstairs barefoot, I could move towards the door to get something but he didn't cue on anything but my eventual opening of the door.

Brianne parks herself in front of the door, and if I pass near her she flips to expose her belly. That's her morning greeting..."rub me!" Star wanted a face rub, Brianne wants a belly rub. Other than the rolling over, she, too, stays relatively quiet while I go through my morning rituals. Neither she nor Star ever presumed to suggest I should get out of bed before I was good and ready.

Elatha, on the other hand, is the only one of my shepherds who has taken the liberty of enthroning herself on the settee in window tower of my room, the better to survey her kingdom below. When she is rested and ready to begin her day, she begins pacing. Even as deeply as I sleep it's hard not to be awakened by the click-click-click of her nails on the hardwood. If by chance I still don't stir, she unceremoniously shoves her snoot into my face. Repeatedly. Whine, shove, pace, repeat. Once I'm on my feet, she by now has had it with confinement and has no patience for my routine. I'm barely vertical and she's herding me to the door. Ignoring her only ensures that she'll position herself immediately in front of me no matter which way I turn. Banishing her back to the settee gets a sigh and an eye-roll (reminiscent of my daughter as a teenager) but at least gains me a couple of undisturbed minutes. Let me even lean in the direction of the door and Ella bridges the distance from the settee to the foyer in a flash, clocking me with her hard head as she zips by. We were leaving, right Mom? You finally are heeding my instructions, arentcha?

Brianne and Star seemed to have a mature outlook on life; things happen that you can ignore, and it's wiser to save your energy until you're called upon for action. Ella is a classic "type A" who never quite got over the sense that the world evolves around her.

Ella's behavior appears to be presumptive, whereas many of my other dogs seem more assumptive. That's where it gets really interesting insofar as what it reveals about what's happening in their heads. Similar to the situation with Ella in the morning, I often find that when I've engaged in a stationary project, anything that keeps me still and requires the dogs to chill awhile, the instant I even ease my concentration on my work the dogs pop up as if someone passed a current of electricity through the floor. And no matter what direction I might head (maybe the bathroom, maybe the fridge) they all assume that I'm going wherever it is they've been wishing I was going. The outdoors, usually. This I know because once again my knees are bruised by their heads and rib-cages as our conflicting intentions collide. And then they look at me, from the door or the cupboard or partway to their hoped-for destination, with eyes that reveal their thoughts. This is where you meant to go, right?

As opposed to Ella, who tries to control my behavior to suit herself, I believe these other instances reflect situations where the dogs assume that what they want is what I want...that since I'm getting up I must surely be headed to the place/thing/event they want to go/eat/do. This happens with people all the time, why not dogs? We assume that others think or feel as we do, that they want and desire the same things we do, that they would be happy having what we want.

Illustrative side note: my ex never did understand that I do not like pepper, that it burns my tongue. Absolutely did not matter how many Sunday brunches I reminded him, please don't pepper my eggs...salt only! He'd serve 'em up peppered and get mad and hurt when I put them on his plate and wouldn't eat them. Surely I was just being contrary? Surely I just wanted to make his life difficult? Surely I was mistaken about my likes or dislikes and would see it his way if I wasn't so doggone bitchy and stubborn? I'll spare you any more significant scenarios, but I would imagine you can all think of examples in your own lives.

Back to the dogs.
I know I'm painting with too broad a brush, and that some of the anticipatory behavior I've described could just as well be indicative of doggy hope, or suggestion, or request (or demand), or (ahem, Miss Elatha) just plain old fashioned domineering, control-freak-iness. But the intrigue lies in the possibility that dogs might consciously think they know what we have in mind, that they might assume that because they want something we also want that thing. If they do...what does that say about their fundamental psychology? How much self-awareness might they actually possess?

And, what about an unconscious mind? Might dogs be motivated and driven by their unconscious much as we are; or to flip the question, might we be driven by our unconscious just as they are? I'm not talking instincts or hard-wired behaviors here, but the unconscious mind that in reality dictates much of what we human beings think and feel and do, whether we care to admit it or not. I just googled and don't find much reference to scientific inquiry into the concept of conscious versus pre- or unconscious thought processes in dogs. But I'm betting it would be enlightening.

The assumptions we make about our experiences throughout life influence what sort of person we become. We assume we understand something, and our next learning opportunity is limited by and predicated on a set of parameters that we regard as "facts" that may in actuality be somewhat or even totally wrong...we build constructs from faulty templates and ultimately might get so off-base we begin re-drawing Reality to fit our inner fantasy. Some folks are more in tune with What Is than others, but we all have our backlog of misperceptions that affect our capacity to appropriately respond to people and events. I think dogs are less subject to that problem, more in touch with Reality, probably because their conscious minds don't interfere or override what their unconscious minds tell them. My dogs may try to dictate my actions, may occasionally succeed; nonetheless, I find in them an antidote to the insanity so rampant in the human world.