One afternoon while waiting for a client to arrive for a training lesson, I was hurrying to get the end-of-the-day work done in case the session ran long. I was hoping to have some time before the lesson so that I would be able to brush out my German Shepherd “Illo”. I find brushing him a relaxing way to while away the time before a lesson.
I groom dogs on a a wide, flat slab of rock about halway up the drive connecting the barn to our house. In the course of getting the chores done, I found myself walking past the grooming rock a number of times and on one of these trips from house to barn, Illo left my side and trotted 30 feet off to the side of the drive to hop up on the rock. I caught this out of the corner of my eye but didn’t give it much significance expecting that as I moved away he would quickly jump down and return to my side as he had been all afternoon.
I went inside the house and after ten minutes I looked out and saw that Illo was still sitting on the rock, looking up at the house as if waiting for what he was supposed to do next. He looked as if he had been commanded to stay on the rock as I sometimes will do when an aggressive dog comes in for a lesson. I called Agi my wife over to take a look and she also found his behavior curious.
Every few minutes I looked out the window and strangely Illo was still on the rock. When Agi and I walked outside to look at him directly, he started to whine, wanting to get off but not feeling right about abandoning the place where he somehow felt he should stay. Finally, after the whole family had gathered to look at him, he hopped off and ran to us.
Slowly it dawned on me what was going on. As I had been working, I distinctly remember visualizing Illo on the rock and with that image in mind, feeling a sense of relief that when I would be grooming him, all my work would be done. At the same time, this feeling of relief was coupled to a a sense of urgency that the work needed to get done, and this was no doubt reflected in the intensity and abruptness of my body movements. I was trying to get a lot of little odds and ends done which I had been putting off for quite some time and in my mind I had bundled all of these chores into a condition to be met before I would take the time to brush Illo out. Illo had picked up on my desire for him on the rock which is why he had suddenly hopped up on it. But in conjunction with this simple desire was a level of intensity which Illo had thereby perceived as a command kind of energy. So Illo had picked up on my feeling for him on the rock, which he perceived as a form of encouragement to get up on the rock and this inspired him to go there. And then he had acted as if I had commanded him to stay there. He had felt what I had been feeling and in its every nuance, even the parts that were, at least in my mind, unrelated to him.
William Campbell has written an interesting article saying that dogs basically know what to do by picking up on human mental images, (it’s available on his website) and I can see how that might have played into this scenario in terms of how Illo might know where to go. But in my view, what would make my mental image compelling to Illo, and what would allow him to pick up on it in the first place, was the feeling that in its incipient moments was unformed and not yet mentally imagined. First I had the feeling and then I had the image. I’m not convinced that dogs need the image to be informed although I don’t have trouble with that being part of the formula. The possibility that Illo picked up on the intensity of my working mannerism means to me that feelings are information enough and a “graphical user interface” would simply be an added luxury. It may l be that dogs are able to completely map out their world entirely in terms of emotional values and need no other frame of reference to keep track of where they are, and how to get to where they want to go, or get what they want to have. Perhaps dogs don’t even need a mental image since their ability to feel about an experience is so highly refined and nuanced with its every detail. So at most it seems to me that Campbell might be right about the phenomenom of imagery but not correct that it is fundamental. The capacity for mental imagery may simply be a sophisticated shorthand for an underlying emotional mechanism with a redundancy that dogs don’t need.
At any rate, this incident helped me further understand that feelings are the real medium of communication between man and dog. In the course of living with us, dogs are constantly asorbing our deepest emotional currents. They are an emotional sponge, they soak us up and then they express our deepest feelings in exquisite ways. It can be so subtle that we fail to see ourselves in their behavior, just as we are so often unaware of precisely what feelings we hold deep in our own subconscious. How do dogs know when we’re about to take them for a car ride, or a walk outside, or, leave them behind? How is it that some dogs know that their owners are about to have epileptic seizures, or that a stranger intends to harm their owner? They know these things because they share the same feelings with humans. They feel what we feel and therefore, because they are closer and more attuned to the pure form of a feeling, they truly know us better than we know ourselves. We may have learned to override our feelings, but dogs can’t. In my work with dogs one thing has become vividly clear; the clearest way to understand yourself, is to see yourself in your dog.
Because the realm of emotions is such a mysterious plane of experience, we think of this medium as something abstract and esoteric. We think of telepathy as something weird and foreign. And yet, when we see how facile dogs are in this regard, we really need to reconsider. The melding of minds that occurs between any two emotionally attuned beings must truly be the most evolved, and yet, the most down to earth form of communication possible.