Can Dogs Tell Stories? The Question
I’m working on a section of my new book right now about stories; about how stories are integral to the way we humans make sense of the world. Story telling is so important to people that to some, the ability to tell them defines us as a species. One writer asked “Who would we be without stories?” Even young pre-verbal children begin to tell stories with their hands, and good parents not only tell stories to their children, they help them learn how to tell them themselves by alternating statements and questions: “And then what did the little duck do?”
Our stories are both a blessing and a curse. We can use them to navigate through the challenges of life like past or current heroes (think Odysseus and Harry Potter), and they can bind us inside boxes that both contain and constrain us (“I always knew I was stupid.”)
We tell stories all the time, both consciously and unconsciously. Not surprisingly, we tell stories about our dogs. These are often constructive, useful narratives that help our dogs lives better lives. “I won’t take Martha to the dog park because I know she wouldn’t like it” is a story based on Martha’s history that makes her life better. Assuming she truly doesn’t enjoy the dog park, it’s good to avoid it. However, sometimes our stories aren’t as constructive. “He’s afraid of men because I’m sure he was beaten” is not only often inaccurate, but adds the underlying story of one’s own (“Men are dangerous”) is not going to help a dog who is genetically shy and under socialized.
Here is my question for you: Can (and do) dogs tell stories? If a story is a description of a sequence of events, can dogs, without the use of language, tell itself stories to help make sense of the world? Stories, the way humans use them, usually have a “theme” or a point to them. Otherwise we would not be able to use them to “make sense of the world.” Stories are our way of explaining the universe: non-industrial people use stories to explain thunder and drought and the origin of mankind. What do dogs do?
I have some thoughts on this issue, which I’ll add in a few weeks, but here are some questions we might ask, to prompt any of you interested in this topic.
- What would dogs have to do to suggest to us that they can tell themselves stories?
- Is there research on non-verbal humans or other species that could add to our inquiry?
- What cognitive ability is necessary to ‘tell a story,’ and what do we know about the cognition of dogs that we can use to inform our study?
I look forward to your answers.
FYI, last week’s post so far has 133 responses to the question “What are Your Favorite Non-Traditional Cues?” I wanted to categorize and summarize them for you this week, but I have to admit I never imagined there would be so many. And they continue to come in. (I love it!) I’ll continue categorizing and sum up what I’ve found in next week’s post.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. Rain! First time in 4-5 weeks, although barely enough to measure. But oh, the earth smelled so sweet and it was such a joy to see even a tiny bit of moisture fall from the sky. We are supposed to get some real rain on Saturday. Paws crossed, it will make such a big difference not just to the surrounding plant life, but also to the wildlife. Already things are so different from typical years: There is virtually no wild apple crop here at the farm, and the local deer usually come in every year to eat the ones that stay on the trees until winter. I suspect it is going to be slim pickings for many species besides deer, including the small rodents who eat grass and seeds (there is almost none of either) and the larger mammals and birds who depend on rodents and wild fruits and seeds.
But today? Oh my, today is glorious. As pretty as it could possibly be. Here is the flock in the late afternoon sun.
Although most of the color is gone now in the woods, here are a few snappy bushes that I have nurtured with water throughout the summer.