Tuesday, November 17, 2009

At the risk of seeming anthropomorphic

For the record, anthropomorphism is the act of equating human emotions to an animal.
So at work yesterday an 8 week old pug puppy came in. The owner had just picked him up yesterday from the breeders home. Somehow I ended up holding him for a few minutes. (yeah my job is so tough) I'm sure it won't surprise anyone that I thought he was super cute. I didn't think to much more about it until later.

Once I sat down at home to relax our pug Jenny gave me the super DOOPER once over. It must have lasted 10 minutes. This is a dog with a fabulous nose as her tracking experience can attest to. Now I have held puppies at work before, along with other animals routinely. I'm sure I smell interesting to my dogs most days. What was it about this smell that was extra special?
I came up with a possible theory that sparks a debate about what our dogs might think about if they do indeed recall memories at will. I mean we know dogs have memories. That is why some are consistently afraid of specific people or items. They remember. (and can be why the fear period developmental phase leaves such a lasting impression dogs)
It occurred to me: What if this puppy came from the same breeder that Jenny did? Could she be smelling something familiar?? The puppy had only been in the new home for one night. It can still smell like the previous home (to another dog) in that time period. I have no idea what breeder Jenny came from originally. We adopted her from Pug Rescue of New England. Her second home was fostering with a rescue person. We are her third port of call and final home. I know that my theory may be a stretch but it got me thinking more about memories in dogs.
The only other time I considered dogs and memories was when we found our foster frenchie Dash his forever home. Before he left I worried that he would be confused about going somewhere else. Would he ever think about us later? Would he wonder about the change? Was he happy here and (initially) not happy about leaving? I didn't worry about the new home, they were a great match, as much as his feelings about it. But my real question is do dogs think about incidents, places, and people from their past like we do? I know we have no way to measure that answer. But it certainly is an interesting one.

Our frenchie Missy also had another home for 4 years before she came to us. Does she think about the dogs there? Does she miss the people in that family? Does she think about the people or dogs? (missing is an emotion, thinking about is the memory question) The only time I ever saw her get reactive was to a friends black and white male frenchie. Was it because she mistook him for a dog she knew before or did it spark a memory? (good or bad)

So maybe Jenny wasn't remembering something from her past due to a smell. Maybe it was just a reaction to the strong smell of a very young puppy. Even we humans recognise the difference in the smell of a puppy and our noses aren't nearly as good as our dogs. But there is room for a "maybe" to the question. I'll never know. As a trainer we are always dealing with addressing behavior issues by teaching people that dogs live in the moment. I do believe that is true in a training context. But does that mean they never think about their past? Ever?
I would love to hear other peoples opinions to the question: Do you think dogs think about their past at all or are they always living in the moment?

Jenny thinks my husband tastes great after coming home from a day in the meatshop.


Adria said...

Hi Marie,

This seems to be always a sticking point for the scientists that look at dogs! There's just no way to prove it either way. But I can tell you that our little beagle mix breed, Kaylee, who is now 9 months old is an exceptionally dog friendly and playful little girl, but.... I have never seen her react with the sort of excitement she showed the first day a beagle came to our play group. For the next hours she had eyes for no one else and never left the dog's side. As far as I know, since we got her at 2-months old, she hasn't even played with a beagle at the park, so my suspicion is that her mother/father/siblings?... somebody looked like this dog!

Now, of course, it could have just been the right size, or right personality, or right types of movement, or a hundred other things that made her love this dog... but, to my eyes, that instantaneous affection showed a lot more than that.

So, I at least think they have some memory of the dogs they spent time with prior to our homes. But, really, I have no proof or background to base that opinion on!

Thanks for posting this though- it was interesting (and full of cute pictures!).


Katie said...

I don't believe that dogs really lay around and think about their pasts-- I just don't believe that dog brains work that way. But I certainly believe that they remember and can be triggered by things out of their pasts- and I'd include familiar smells in that.

Interesting post.