In my last entry, I promised a quote from well-known psychologist and dog expert Stanley Coren, taken from his excellent book, The Consciousness of Dogs. I’m going to deliver on that promise, but first, what exactly is consciousness?

If you look in the Random House College Dictionary, you get this: “the state of being conscious; awareness. the thoughts and feelings, collectively, of an individual or of an aggregate of people. full activity of the mind and senses. awareness of something for what it is: consciousness of wrongdoing.”

Of these definitions, “awareness of something for what it is” strikes me as the key. To be possessed of consciousness, I have to know what I am, and I have to know what other things are that aren’t me. You don’t have consciousness unless you can make this distinction. I have read that children are only partially conscious until sometime around the age of five. At this point, they have fully lost their sense of the world as an extension of themselves, and are now individuals. (You probably know people who never actually stop thinking of everything and everyone else this way.)

Asking most dog owners whether dogs have consciousness is a no-brainer. They will answer with stories that illustrate how their dog demonstrates consciousness all the time, how smart he/she is, how “good” or “naughty,” etc. Others, those who occupy the Outer Darkness inhabited by dogless people, tend to express their opinion on the question by rolling their eyes and sighing. They see dogs and no doubt all animals as pure instinct, acting on genetic programs that don’t include decisions or knowledge of the world.

So, for those who aren’t impressed by anecdotes about your dog’s consciousness, here’s a story from an expert:

Nearly a week had gone by without any noticeable sunshine. That particular afternoon, though, the clouds seemed to part, and a burst of afternoon sunshine shone through the window, forming a big golden patch on the hardwood floor. Completing my work, I was moving toward the kitchen to get a cup of coffee when I noticed my Cavalier King Charles spaniel Wiz standing in the circle of light. He looked up at the window and then down at the floor as if he were contemplating something, and then he deliberately turned and ran from the room. Within a matter of moments, however, he reappeared dragging a huge terry-cloth towel that he had stolen from the bathroom. He pulled the towel into the center of the patch of sun, looked at it, and then pushed at one lumpy section with both front paws. Having arranged the towel to his satisfaction, he then circled around and settled down for a nap on his newly created bed in the warm afternoon sun. If my young child had done this, I would have said that he felt the warmth of the sun and thought that it would be nice to take a nap in it. Then, remembering the towel in the bathroom, he went and retrieved it so that he could sunbathe more comfortably. All this requires consciousness, intelligence, and planning. Does my dog Wiz have it? It is easier for me simply to recognize that my dog’s behaviors in this situation were similar to behaviors that are accompanied by consciousness in a human faced with the same situation. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I will presume that I am dealing with consciousness and intelligent behavior in my dog as well.

Quoted with permission from The Intelligence of Dogs: Canine Consciousness and Capabilities, by Stanley Coren.

There it is—“awareness of something for what it is.” In this case, sunshine as a source of pleasurable warmth, a way to make lying in the sun more satisfying, a place where the “equipment” for doing so is located, going there and getting this equipment, a return to the sunny locale, manipulation of the equipment to make it serve better—then the nap.

Tell your skeptical friend to put that in his pipe and smoke it. But if Dr. Coren’s story confirms what you already know to be true about your own dog, or dogs in general, the odds are good you’ll enjoy Just Bill.

I plan on taking up other things in this blog, but often I’ll be reflecting on dogs and doggy matters. Of course I hope you’re a dog person, and that you’ll check in regularly. We’ll be here.


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