This Holidays 4 Dogs article will ponder the philosophical question of whether our dogs really do live in the moment.
It is almost a romantic notion that a dog, ‘lives in the moment’ – that they joyfully go through life without reason to worry, feel sad or suffer emotional pain or trauma and there are many schools of thought who believe this to be so, including many well known dog trainers world wide. But the idea of whether dogs really do just act on instinct is certainly much contested and probably raises more questions than answers.
There are many people who believe that dogs do operate simply by innate instinct. This school of though goes back to Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and scientist who claimed that animals such as dogs were simply unthinking machines, without souls or consciousness and therefore with no feeling for pain. Sadly, his theory led him to carry out abominable experiments on live dogs, including his own wife’s pet dog in order to prove his point.
However, science has moved on in considerable leaps and bounds away from the ideas of Descartes and similar, arguably misguided, philosophies. Looking back at our other Holidays 4 Dogs article on tail wagging, we now know that science has discovered that a dog has all the same brain structures humans have, which produce emotions very similar to our own.
This is not to say that a dog has the exact emotional responses as humans, because clearly they do not, but scientists have established that a dog’s responses, emotions and understanding of the world around them is broadly the same as a two year old child.
It is probable that when people suggest that dogs live in the moment, they are describing the fact that dogs do not have the capacity to think in an abstract way and they are not able to consider past experiences which may colour how they approach a circumstance in the present.
True, dogs do learn and they can solve problems, but scientists have also found that they have limitations in terms of a comparison with humans and they do not think or reason in the same way we do. Others would suggest this idea makes a dog more superior to humans because it is said they do not sulk or brood about the past, they do not plot or scheme; they do not lie, betray or seek revenge – science tells us none of these complex emotions are within the range of a dog’s way of thinking, although as humans we are very good at projecting these emotions onto our dogs.
Many dog owners will argue that their dogs are capable of suffering guilt, but this is not really the case and is outlined in more depth in our other Holidays 4 Dogs article, ‘Do dogs really suffer guilt?’ What owners witness when they come home and find the house soiled, is not guilt on the dog’s part, but a more basic emotion of fear that he associates with reprimand from his disgruntled owner.
However, there is growing evidence and research to suggest that dogs have a social intelligence in which a dog monitors his owner’s behaviour as a possible means of receiving help with a task. This is not so far fetched when we consider how dogs have been domesticated over the centuries to work with man as hunting and herding dogs and more recently with much more complex tasks such as leading the blind or detecting seizures, but none of this proves that a dog is capable of multifaceted thoughts or emotions.
The idea then, that dogs are stuck in the moment is largely supported, at the moment, by scientific evidence and research in many different areas of animal cognition. Dogs have a limited sense of time which does not include the ability to link the past and the future to the present, simply because perhaps their brains have not evolved this cognitive ability in the same way humans have. Much of the research carried out on spatial awareness and memory on dogs (and other species), relies heavily on the dogs being specially trained beforehand therefore demonstrating that dogs do not have episodic memory.
None of this should suggest that dogs aren’t highly amazing and clever animals as well as being incredibly connected to the immediate world around them. Dogs can remind us of this very important lesson in life, to be happy and appreciative; ‘to live in the moment’. Dogs do not hang onto emotional baggage or harbour grudges – even dogs that have been terribly abused by their owner will still remain loyal to them, responding with tail wags and licks.
Dogs seem to gain such happiness from enjoying all the simplest moments in life and they don’t regret the past or worry about the future, but pay close attention to the here and now. It might be said that in many ways, our dogs are often much better than we are when it comes to making the most out of life and being acutely aware of the importance of the present moment.
Andrea Gordon BSc and Dog trainer.