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Monday, December 26, 2011

Do Sleeping Dogs Lie?

Silver waiting to read the comics.
It's the day after Christmas and, all through our house, not a creature is stirring except for our 178 lb. Irish Wolfhound. Silver is dreaming. He is a big dog and he has big dreams.

Like humans, dogs enter the REM/dream state about 20 minutes after falling asleep. Silver's paws twitch ferociously and he makes mewling sounds for about four to five minutes before he sinks into a more silent repose. I wonder what fills his dreams? On the surface, Silver seems to be enacting a sequence in which he is clearly chasing something-- or being chased. However, research suggests that, like humans, dreaming animals relive sequences of their waking moments. This is what confuses me. Silver is, as noted, a big dog. Nothing has ever chased him anywhere. As far as I know he has never chased anything. He never leaves the back yard where there is nothing to chase. Does he tap instead into deep ancestral memory? Some shared  recollection of pre-domestication? I don't think so. Like yours and mine, I think Silver's dreams are full of fears and wishes. Silver's subconscious is composing a fiction.

This conclusion may seem to be something of a leap, but there are several connections between point A (Silver is dreaming) and point F (Silver is composing fiction).  Anyone who lives with animals knows they can understand the outcomes of sequential actions (e.g., sit, beg, treat), but these are not always simple sequences. When Silver was a pup, I was attempting to train him not to sit on the furniture. Silver understood the sequence: I would let him in, he would walk into the living room and jump up on the couch. I would try to shame him by saying in a loud voice, "No, Silver. Bad dog!" while grasping his collar and pulling him onto the carpet. He repeated the sequence, but I became more watchful and blocked most of his attempts.

Too smart to continue in this way, Silver eventually combined his efforts with another sequence he had learned: the alarm bark sequence. Ever since he had caught his paw in some loose decking, Silver knew that I would come running if he sounded the alarm bark. One day Silver was outside and sounded the alarm. As he anticipated, I came running. This time, however, when I came outside he was not in sight. I had to go around the corner of the house where he was waiting. As soon as I was there, he side-stepped me, flew onto the deck, pushed open the door, ran into the house and jumped on the couch.

This sequence involved complex thinking beyond mere sequence. Silver had created a plot. He knew that I might be able (for a few more months at any rate) to run interference between him and  his couch. He also knew that he even if I saw through his ruse de guerre, I would never outrun him. He looked so pleased with himself I just let his stay there.

To some degree, fiction is the arrangement of sequences, which Silver demonstrated he understood. Further, by inventing a strategy to beat me at my own game, Silver had lied to me in his actions -- and what is fiction but a kind of lie? He also showed that he understood character --mine -- and introduced the critical ingredients of emotion and motivation -- his.


  1. Dogs are master manipulators. They know us better than we know ourselves. We gave up the furniture fight years ago. :)

    1. You are so right. You would I would learn after all the dogs that have tried to train me!