Sunday, August 19, 2012

Perchance to Dream

Years ago, I read an article written by a behavioral scientist who, after considerable research, had determined that dogs don’t dream.  I couldn’t imagine how anyone who had spent any time at all with a dog could have come to such a ridiculous conclusion.  One needn’t be around dogs for long to witness the twitching paws, wagging tail, clacking teeth, smacking lips or half-whimpers of a sound asleep dog in the REM stage.  Obviously, dogs don’t dream in the same way that humans do.  Being non-verbal creatures, it’s unlikely that there are many conversations in their dreams.  Would Freud, Jung or Adler, given the opportunity, have been able to find unconscious or symbolic meaning in canine dreams?  Probably not.  I bet that there’s a lot less talk and a lot more action in doggie night-pictures, though.  And the sensaround must be awesome!

Of course, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know the exact form of dog dreams, but we can imagine.  Am I projecting to think that dogs have a sense of “I,” “you” and “we”?  I don’t believe so.  Cleo, seeing her reflection for the first several times, reacted pretty strongly to the other puppy who insisted on doing everything she was doing.  Before long, not only did she come to recognize herself, but she began to use the reflective properties of surfaces at her eye-level to watch me without having to go to the trouble of turning around.  In the PDD (pre-dog-door) days, she would sit in front of the sliding glass door and stare meaningfully at my reflection until I got the message and opened it up for her.  Right there that seems to indicate an “I”-“you” awareness.  “If I do this action, you will do that action.”  The canine connection to the “we,” to family, has long been established. 

When I watch Cleo dreaming, I imagine a lot of playing with kids, chasing of ground squirrels, occasionally some running away from other dogs.  Most of the time she’s happy in her dreams, her tail wagging drumbeats against the couch or bed.

And there’s an essential concept: This behaviorist argued that dogs do not dream because they cannot imagine.  Are you kidding me?  Okay, maybe not all dogs have imaginations, but I know Cleo does.  My great uncle Harold was a game inventor, and he was good at it.  Compared to Cleo, he was an amateur.  In the case of her favorite game, Keep-Away, it’s not so much the game itself but the variations on her escape routes that show her imagination.  Up onto the couch, leap to the chaise, down onto the floor, a lap around the coffee table, back up onto the couch, leap to the chaise, vault over the back of the chaise and slide under the piano, around the leg, along the side then it’s a dash to the kitchen for a turn around the island, slip between the island and the counter stools, then tear back into the living room to start the combination again.  Win or lose, it doesn’t matter to her.  If she gets away and keeps the toy, she’s happy she has made you chase her all over the place.  If you get the ball, or the moose, or the antler, she’s just as happy in the expectation that you will do something exciting with it, like throw it or hide it so she has to search it out.

It’s when she plays by herself that her imagination is exercised the most.  She’ll perch her ball on the very edge of a high spot, a step or a chair, and wait until it rolls off, then fling herself after it.  Doesn’t it take not only imagination but intelligence to conceive of a way to “throw” a ball so it can be chased?  My favorite moments, though, are when she positions a toy a few feet from herself, then backs away and stares at it intently.  Her tail extends straight out and her rear end wiggles as she waits for the toy to effect its escape.  Suddenly, she pounces on it, grabs it in her jaws, gives it a shake to break its back and prances in a joyful, laughing victory lap, ready to start the routine all over again.

Her latest favorite, albeit ephemeral, toy is an ice cube.  At the first hint of a whirr from the refrigerator ice dispenser, Cleo races from any part of the house and stands, legs straight, tail up, ears forward, staring at the little ice chute.  Hum, grind, plop, the ice cube lands in my hand and I bowl it across the kitchen floor and into the living room.  Cleo bounds, like a leaping deer, to catch it, kicks it, sends it flying off in a new direction.  She catches it up in her teeth, then storms around the living room until it is just too cold to hold any longer.  She spits it out and puts a paw on it so that it squirts off crazily across the rug, and the chase can begin all over again.  When it has melted down to about half its original size, she rolls over onto it, biting at it and pretending she can’t quite reach it.  Sometimes she loses track of it and has to jump up and find it before flopping over onto it once more.

I may be projecting.  Goodness knows I’d never deny that I’m biased.  But it seems to me that all of this takes a strong imagination.  Maybe the bottom line is that I don’t believe we can learn all there is to know about an animal by studying it in a lab.  To truly understand someone, even to want to truly understand, we have to love them.  When we love them, their smallest gesture or act takes on significance.  The accumulation of small acts creates a pattern, the pattern takes on meaning, the meaning deepens our love, and we understand a fraction more.  Words are as unnecessary for the flowering of love as they are for the experience of a dream.  


  1. What a precious "child" you have there, Joyce. And what a clear insight into the realities of love and dreams - and faulty behavioral scientists. As always, glad to have a peek into Cleo's world through your eyes.
    Love, Jo Ann

  2. I concur entirely.

    The game-playing is at least as interesting to humans as it is to the dogs, I think. My Bedlington and his ShitZhu sister, a seriously disabled rescue, used to play a chase game in the yard: Bedlington (able dog) took a ball to the top of a 200' hill, gave it a nudge to set it rolling, chased it down the hill until it got within range of the ShitZhu when she'd lunge at it, then it was a big jumble of dogs and ball for another 10-12 feet, all rolling down the hill together. If the ball didn't roll right to her (rocky hill), he'd chase and fetch it and bounce it at her until she got a chance to go for it, then he'd join in the fray. After she got so crippled she couldn't get around on her own at all, he never made an attempt to play that game again, but invented several others that she could join in.

    They are amazing to watch and contemplate. No imagination, indeed! That's a "researcher" without imagination, IMHO.

  3. Thanks Joyce. Always enjoy reading yours and Cleo's blog. And I see the same things in my Bedlingtons as you see in Cleo. I have no doubt that they dream and definitely have an imagination too.
    Best Regards,
    Hessel and the HolyLamb's, Felly and Styler :)

  4. Dearest Joyce-
    I am home sick today, so I've had a chance to catch up on the blog entries I've missed because of being so "busy" with things. Reading your entries is like curling up with a favorite book. I don't suppose these entries might eventually make their way onto a collection of pages of a book....??? XO Mel