They Feel What We Feel

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.

Published June 1, 2009 by Kevin Behan

9 responses to “They Feel What We Feel”

  1. Rudy's Mom says:

    The other evening my GSD and I went for our usual walk in a park/conservation area near our home. I was amazed at the number of people camping in the park. Since Rudy was fear aggressive (before his visit to Kevin) towards strangers and dogs I continue to be cautious,even though he has been excellent. I do not want him in a situation where he might fail so I left the park without incident after some pushing and lots of up on big rocks to speak, down etc. Upon our return to our house; I was attempting to remove his training collar when my husband came along. Rudy began to struggle and strain to greet him as my husband spoke to him and reached out for him. I felt annoyance as I was struggling with the collar and thought’can’t you see I am struggling and you are making it worse.’ No sooner had these thoughts crossed my mind when Rudy backed away and began to bark very aggressively at my husband!!
    So why would he go from wanting so badly to greet my husband to sounding like he wanted a piece of him? It had to be my thoughts. Admittedly; I was a little uptight yet relieved that the walk had gone so well with so many distractions. But Rudy had been fine until I became annoyed.

  2. kbehan says:

    Indeed, how a dog reflects its owner never ceases to amaze me. Just keep on pushing, in fact, have your husband play role of boogey-man and you can get this deeper level agitated by park experiences up to surface and resolved. Good job.

  3. Christine says:

    I have an acqaintance who recently (Friday) lost his dog, Yukon. Yukon was 13 and had lived a wonderful doggie life. Mike has a younger female, Waya; she is not quite 2 years old. Over the weekend Waya howled all night Friday and cried all day Saturday. Then she went and got Yukon’s collar, layed down beside Mike and started nipping on the collar. Mike is very connected to his woofers and he has a ton of moose energy (even though he know’s nothing of NDT), to the extent that while out on one of their excersions, when they came upon a couple of moose, Yukon and Waya ignored them. They are both wolfdogs and Waya is very high-content. I’m curious as to what is going on with Waya and what it is she’s reflecting of Mike’s emotional state. I understand that she is reflecting his grief and sense of loss but I’m not sure why she went and found his collar, layed down beside Mike and started nipping it. What is your read on this Kevin?

  4. kbehan says:

    I would say at a glance that indeed Mike is mourning the loss of a part of his heart, and Maya is externalizing what he probably keeps to himself, moose guys are like that, and then the problem for the dog is to objectify a yearning of attraction (this is the part of grief that is pure emotion and of a true feeling and so what animals experience) and so she is connecting the object to the source. It’s akin to as if Mike has thrown a stick (projected some of his self into an object) and then the dog is driven to return the object to its source, like electricity running to ground.

  5. Christine says:

    Thank you, that feels right

  6. Christine says:

    So then, when I told him that Waya feels his longing for Yukon and so went and got his collar, I was pretty much on the mark, yes?

  7. kbehan says:

    Yes I agree, just nailing down all the theoretical threads which reads a little convoluted, sorry about that.

  8. Christine says:

    No need for apologies…I just need to masticate and spit it back out. That’s how I make it mine. It’s nice for me that I can check in with you for a bit of validation and to make sure I’m getting the gist properly. It’s all good… 😀

  9. Christine says:

    …or to put it more succinctly…you do what you do and I do what I do…you say ‘potatoe’ and I say “patatoe”…ya know!

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