Do dogs worry?
I keep one eye on my mum’s dog, Kai, as we go for a walk through town and around the park. What is he looking at? Does he ever stop looking at things and fret about the past or future, like we apes do?
Does he think things like:
I bet it’ll be bloody dog food for dinner again.
I chase the stick; I grab the stick; I come back. But what’s the point, ultimately? And what if all the sticks run out? OMG no no no. I can’t run after nothing.
I wish I’d run after that cat faster in 2014. No idea what I would have done with it if I’d caught it, but – should have run faster. Dammit. Bet it’s still out there, laughing at me.
What mark am I leaving on the world? Well, apart from that one I left over there….oh no, he’s picking it up with one of those little bags again, thanks for making me look like I can’t bury my own poo. SO EMBARRASSING. Oh, he has a biscuit, he’s forgiven.
Dogs seem to be imaginative. If you open a door in front of a dog, it’ll watch you do it, imagine itself doing it, and have a go itself when you’re not looking. Try this with a wild canine, say, a wolf, and it’ll ignore you, then try to work out how doors work for itself.* Domesticated dogs have lost this ability to puzzle-solve because they’ve discovered magical tools for unlocking the secrets of the modern world, called “humans”. Life is easy: just use humans!
But do they worry? They certainly get anxious, sometimes even depressed. But Kai seems so present – sniffing at things, cocking his ears at every sound, jerking this way and that on the leash as he follows invisible contrails of smell through the cold January air. Even anxiety and depression could still be interpreted as “staying entirely in the present” – if you’re fed up right now, they’ll respond accordingly.
So no, they don’t seem to worry. Consequently, no challenge is too great for a dog.
We have even made a word about it, “dogged“: having or showing tenacity and grim persistence.
Is a healthy imagination an asset or a burden when you’re taking on a big, scary challenge?
At various points of my life, my imagination has turned me into a hero and a coward. There’s a life-affirming thrill from tackling something that’s way, way bigger than you are. There’s also the moment when all the doom-laden scenarios in your head take control and you collapse into a weak, self-disgusted heap. The better your imagination, the more real those possible futures feel, and the more jelly-like your knees become.
But – what about imagining embarrassment, shame and self-recrimination as a counter-balance? What about empathy with your future self? Because THAT stuff gets you up on your feet and moving again.
So maybe humans lack a dog’s doggedness, but we can also use our ability to jump forward in time to motivate us in a constructive manner – even if it means scaring ourselves so much that it cancels out the lesser terror of mortal fear. Yes, tenacity is a real shitshow for the soul.
However, nothing beats our ability to be motivated by the past.
I don’t know how much Kai can remember what he’s done, but the times I’ve gritted my teeth and done something and found it was achievable – they’re an amazing asset for my future adventures. For humans, nothing beats experience. And sometimes, what keeps me walking onwards when I’m really, really tired and the rain’s coming down and I just want it to end . . . is knowing that someday, I’ll be able to use the memory of it to attempt something better.
Go there, and do that, so you’ve been there and done that.
You’ll thank yourself later.
* I’m reading two utterly fascinating books on dog psychology: Inside Of A Dog by Alexandra Horowitz, and The Philosopher And The Wolf by Mark Rowlands. They’re less about how to bring up a dog, and more about what you can learn by being a bit more dog/wolf-like in your approach to life. Recommended.
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