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.

Comments

  1. Ravana says

    When my niece was about 18 month old she told her first story, “Woof!” [point to hand] “AhPa!” She told this story to everyone she met for about 3 days. Translated the story is, “I put my hand through the fence to pet the neighbor’s dog, Suzy. Suzy stole my mitten and ran away. Grandpa had to jump over the fence to get the mitten back.” If there hadn’t been adult witnesses who could translate the story, would anyone have thought it was a story or have had a clue what the story meant?

    When my dog loses an important toy under the couch, t.v. cabinet, or dresser he will give me a puppy bark, go to the place where the toy is trapped, look down at the floor by it and moan. If I say, “What’s under there?” and start naming toys he will yip when I get to the right one. His joy when I get down to rescue the toy is extreme.

    That lead in is me saying, I’m sure dogs tell stories, but I think we are too slow to figure out what they are telling us most of the time. I always imagine when my dog meets his friends on walks they tell each other the major events that have happened to them between the last time they saw each other. “And I got on the couch while she was at work…” “She made me homemade biscuits on Saturday!” “That damn feral cat sat on the front porch ALL MORNING LONG!”

  2. Jody HaasWolfson says

    Yes, dogs must be able to tell stories to each other in regards to their continuing relationships. Dogs continue friendships and continue play which in my understanding indicates being able to sequence forward and backward. If dogs dream (and we know they do dream) they must also be capable of stories which are conscious dreams.

  3. says

    I think they can think in images, so their minds would be something like pieces of movies, or a powerpoint with an abstract of emotions. Maybe they see snapshots coupled with odors and emotions mixed…
    I don’t think they can “tell” stories in the sense we do, but I think they understand them. If you repeat some tasks in certain order, they look where you have to go next, and look surprised if you don’t, for example, so they have to have some image of it in their minds…
    I know there’s some paper with a chimpanzee, looking for Theory of Mind, in which they gave her some images, that told a story, and asked her to choose the ending. She choose the happy ending for the people in the story she liked, and the not-so-happy (falling to the ground, I think) for the people she didn’t like so much. I can review my data for the references, if you want.
    One last thing: we had rain too!!! after three months of serious drought, we’ve had two thunderstorms. Not so much water, but it’s something…

  4. Kat says

    What a fascinating question. When I think of stories I first think of a verbal narrative and I think that’s something dogs do. Sometimes when you see people telling themselves stories you see them moving their lips or making gestures or faces; you can see them engaging in their narrative. I’ve never observed that in a dog. On the other hand, I see Finna especially figuring out what the weird humans want her to do. Finna grew up with animal hoarders and was completely unsocialized which given her high strung temperament is a really bad thing. We’ve spent nearly a year now trying to teach her to stop and think and then choose a reaction rather than just reacting aggressively. She still isn’t comfortable with my husband, he’s tall, he looms, he’s less easily predicted than the rest of the family and for her just generally scary. When he suddenly appears when she didn’t expect him (she was asleep for example) she’ll charge at him stopping about a foot away and then there is a definite pause and, anthropomorphizing I know, but I’d swear she runs through little movies of possible outcomes trying out different things she can do to get what she wants. When she gets to the movie where her bottom on the floor results in him feeding her treats her bottom hits the floor. There’s a distinct sequence of events, she runs at him, she stops, there’s a definite pause, and her bottom hits the ground. So in that sense I think she does tell herself stories trying out different outcomes based on experience. I see her do much the same thing when we’re working on training and she’s not understanding the cue; there will be a distinct pause while she reviews what’s worked in the past, then she’ll select a behavior to offer.

  5. Merciel says

    Hmm, I don’t know if dogs tell stories. What an interesting question!

    My immediate reaction was to say “no,” because I’m used to thinking of “story” as meaning “fiction” and of course dogs don’t have (intentional) fictions, but then Ravana’s comment reminded me that “story” can also mean “narrative” and shifted my opinion the other way, so… I guess I’m back to “hmm, I don’t know!”

    But I think we do know that dogs have memory and a certain amount of imagination (even if it’s just imagining what sort of horrible monster that big sunglasses-wearing snowman might be, or imagining what tasty morsel might be hiding in that garbage bag), and it seems to me that if you have both memory and imagination then you must have SOME capacity for story.

  6. Kat says

    I wish there were an edit option. I Don’t think dogs tell themselves a verbal narrative the way people do but I do think I see Finna, especially, play little movies in her head.

  7. Margaret McLaughlin says

    Very interesting question. Since dogs are non-verbal I could imagine their stories are sequences of images (or smells), & even imagine them retelling them to other dogs or us with gestures & body language without having to strain my credulity too far.
    I have worked as a CNA for many years, & have several times observed humans whose language functions have been destroyed by a CVA–people who could neither speak or understand speech–who are able to tell stories, “You bumped my table & knocked off my water pitcher & it landed in the bed & I’m all wet!” without using words.
    So if pre- & post-verbal humans can do it…..

  8. Laura says

    I think our idea of stories, as a fictional thing trips us up with this question, but all stories really are, at the bottom of it, is a form of communication. We use them to socialize our children, as entertainment and as causion and all of those things are communication. Dogs communicate, just like we do and I think they can tell you a story in that sense. Is a dog going to write a great novel? no. Firstly they lack the thumbs, but when Seamus comes to me, sits down, slaps his paw on my knee and stares up into my face after work, he’s telling me a story… I’m hungry Woman… feed me!
    I think the best example of a dog laying out a series of events for an owner is when they’re showing something to us. Lassie did it all the time with timmy and our dogs do it too. My first Guide, Marlin, would Pattern, so consistantly that he would pause everytime we passed a certain building on campus. He was saying, “Mom, remember when we went to Spanish class in this building all fall Semester? I know it was 3 years ago, but do you remember? I’m just checking if you need to go in there again and if you do, I can show you right where that classroom was.” To me, that’s how our dogs tell stories.
    Just as an aside, Tricia, do you have an earlier post on this blog discussing dogs and dreaming? I’d love to read it, and I’d love to know, if any, what studies have been done on it. When our dogs bark/yip/growl/run/wag their tails, are they having happy dreams or nightmares? also, it hasn’t rained here yet either. We got a little on Tuesday, but it wasn’t really rain, only a drizzle. We’re supposed to get rain here on Saturday as well. I hope we do. We really need it.

  9. em says

    What a complex and interesting question. I find myself pretty much in agreement with everyone else so far- I doubt that dogs have the same linguistic capacity for storytelling that humans do, and seem to think in the abstract much less, but they clearly do generalize from past experiences, predict the future and negotiate challenges using imagination, and experience memories through the lens of emotional recollection, all of which speaks to me of storytelling.

    The example that came immediately to my mind is perhaps a shaky one- I can’t be sure that the behavior that I have observed can be explained by the story that I know, much less how well that story corresponds to anything that happens in Otis’ mind, but here it is:

    Otis loves policemen. Firefighters and security guards, too. Anybody in a police-looking uniform, really. He actively seeks to approach them, offers many more affectionate gestures upon first meeting them (nuzzling, head nudges, the patented ‘dane lean’) than he does normal people, he even wags his tail when he sees them, which he doesn’t typically do except when quite excited, and never for any other type of stranger.

    Here’s the story I know about Otis. He was found running loose in an extremely rural area. He was well along the road toward starving to death, and in poor enough condition otherwise to make it likely that he had been neglected over a long period. Later, it became clear that Otis had none of the knowledge one would expect to find in a pet- he acted as though he had never heard a toilet flush, or seen an object thrown, or glimpsed his own reflection. He had absolutely zero reaction to human speech. Otis rolled with all of these new experiences with a minimum of fuss, but really, truly gave the impression of having had almost no contact with people before he came to the shelter and then to us.

    Because he was picked up as a stray, the shelter had a police report on Otis, which they gave to us when we adopted him. It read like this: A woman noticed him hanging around her property and called the police for a possible dangerous dog. An officer answered the call, saw Otis, and removed him from her property. With no id tags, the dog was sent to the shelter.
    Here’s what the shelter was able to tell us: Seeing the condition that he was in, the officer hadn’t called for animal control, but rounded Otis up, loaded him into the back of his patrol car and drove him to the shelter (40 minutes away) personally.

    Here’s what I think Otis is telling me, every time he bounces joyfully up to a policeman he’s never met- When he was alone and scared, a policeman helped him. That officer took him out of the cold (it was October, almost exactly four years ago today) and offered him the safety of his car and his company. He then brought him to a place where he could be safe and warm, fed and cared for.

    It’s possible that what I’m witnessing is pure Pavlovian conditioned response- Otis may not have any idea why he likes men in uniform. Or it may be some other reason altogether. But I don’t think so. I think that my dog with his long legs and even longer memory DOES have a story in his mind. It may not be the one that I suspect it is, but I’m betting it’s a story, nonetheless.

  10. says

    This is something I’d definitely like to think more about, as it’s fascinating.

    There are times Elka and I have conversations, so in a way I guess she’s telling a story. Example: I’m eating toast with peanut butter on it. Elka watches me put this together in the kitchen, and follows me to the living room where I sit to eat. She watches me from close proximity, sitting or laying down on a couch. There is a point at which (and I’m not sure yet what this tipping point is) that she’ll get up and go hunt down a Kong or her Monster Mouth (a similar toy) and put it on my leg, look significantly at my plate, nose the toy, and look up at me. Translation? “I have peanut butter when I have these toys. You’re eating peanut butter. I would like some.” If I comply, she settles with her toy, and that’s that. There are other times when I swear she is telling me a story, through body language and vocalizations, and when she finishes the sentence or thought, she looks at me brightly, and i have no idea what I was supposed to understand. She’ll repeat herself, and gets frustrated at the language barrier!

    We also have the “What do you need?” conversation, where I’ve spent time shaping her vocalizations, so she will respond “Out” as closely as she can approximate, if she needs to go out.

    We’re hashing out the annual conversation of “Elka is cold and needs her hoodie”; Sunday or Monday was the first day this year that I put it on her.

  11. Daniel says

    Interesting question. I think by listening to my dog’s dreams at night that he is running the days major events through his head. The dreams seem to be an exaggerated edit of the events, for instance he had an aggressive dog or two give him a hard time at the dog park, during which he was submissive and did his absolute puppy style best to avoid escalation of the aggression. In his dream however there are growls and low barks ,something he only does in his sleep if there has been a scary or very stressful event with another dog during the day.

  12. em says

    Ack! I forgot to add an important detail- the police report itself was bare bones, just the facts. The shelter workers only told us about Otis’ arrival at the shelter after we expressed concern that he might not fit easily into the back seat of a sedan. They told us only that Otis had arrived in the back of a police cruiser because the officer who picked him up had driven him directly in. Nothing else. We made no assumptions about how that must have gone at the time- police officers are experienced in wrangling unwilling passengers into their cruisers, after all, and it’s possible that doing so was simply the most expedient way to handle the situation. It’s entirely possible that the police officer threatened and harassed Otis, bullying him into submission.

    But I wouldn’t bet on it. That’s not the story that OTIS tells. Sickness and starvation could account for Otis being caught without a net or a pole, brute strength could have forced him into the car, but nothing but kindness accounts for the persistence of his generalized affection. Somewhere, sometime, a man in uniform meant something very good to him. Even if I have the rest of the details wrong, I’d bet my bottom dollar on that.

  13. Kat says

    Hmmm, these replies have really gotten me thinking. Before I was thinking in terms of stories that we as humans tell ourselves and whether our dogs also have stories that they tell themselves. But thinking about whether dogs tell stories to other dogs here’s one that makes me think that they do tell stories to other dogs and that the stories aren’t necessarily true. Ranger had a best friend in the neighborhood. Ranger was four and his Rottie/Lab/Dane pal was about 18 months. They were playing together one day and the pal found the best stick. It was a wonderful stick about 30 inches long and an inch diameter. Ranger wanted the stick but his pal wasn’t going to share. Ranger sniffed around the yard intently for a few seconds and found a twig maybe a quarter inch diameter and six inches long. He made a big show of enjoying his twig and guarding his twig and generally “selling” the idea that this twig was the most fabulous find ever. After warning his pal off a couple of times when the pal came to investigate this marvelous find, Ranger “got distracted” and looked away as if interested in something else. His pal promptly stole the twig and while he was puzzling over what was so interesting about this twig Ranger took control of the original big stick. Once he had the stick Ranger chewed it in half and taking his piece a little distance away from the other half settled down to gnaw his stick. His pal picked up the other half and gnawed on it nearby. It sure looks to me like Ranger told his pal a story about how much better the twig was than the desirable stick in order to gain control of the desirable stick.

  14. D says

    Years ago, I adopted a second cat, and sadly, he and my existing cat did not see eye to eye. One day I got home from work, parked in the garage, and came up the cellar stairs into the kitchen. Instead of greeting me happily as usual, my rescued BC greeted me with a mixture of “glad to see you” wags and urgent “where the heck have you been” yaps, screeches and barks. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Rooo rooo ROOOO!” she answered, then put her nose to the floor and showed me a pile of black fur. “Oh my goodness!” I said. “Was there a cat fight?” “ROO ROOROOOOO” she replied, wagging her tail but still looking anxious. I swear she was happy that I noticed what she was trying to point out – the fur on the floor. “What happened next?” I asked her. “woooooooooorrooo” she replied, sounding much more like a husky than a border collie, and proceeded to walk through the house showing me all the piles of fur. She finally led me to her preferred cat (the one we’d had all along), and once I picked him up and checked him out (he was fine), she settled. There was no doubt in my mind that she was telling me a story, and was satisfied once I acknowledged that I got the message.

    Clever girl. I have more “stories of her stories” but that one really sticks out in my mind.

  15. Donna in VA says

    There are many stories I WISH Max could tell me. Oh well.
    The very first day I brought him home from the shelter, he spent the entire day on his feet, walking, pacing, until he finally lay down exhausted around 10pm. However when I sat down to eat lunch, he came to me and laid his chin on my leg and gave me the “big eyes” to see if he could have any of my food. Apparently it had worked for him before, I think that was a story he was telling me. He has pretty much stopped that with me, but will try it with any new person or anyone who succumbs to it on a regular basis.

    His behavior riding in the car is also interesting. He does not spent time looking out the window as most dogs do. He spends some time lying on the seat gazing up through the window at the clouds, sometimes he seems to just be dozing. I think he is just thinking pleasant thoughts. He will happily ride for hours this way.

  16. celia says

    A story told to me by my dog. Thank goodness you are here, just a moment ago a bad person/thing/animal came into the kitchen and ate all that roast beef that was resting on the counter , did you not see him/her/it ? This is why I am barking now and why I think we should all race about into the garden and bark at the escaping thing/person , I will just lick my lips ….
    It was a total theatrical display, just as I opened the door and saw him lowering himself o so carefully back to the floor . There was woofing, big eyes and scurrying about with follow me let’s go over here . I had just walked out of the door into my back garden for a few seconds . I had never before known him to counter surf, but the warm beef was too much to resist. The story he told was a total invention .

  17. Lisa W says

    This is such a good question. I had to first sort out story vs. narrative. My dogs have narratives based on where they came from (not good) and what they have since experienced (mainly good). But a story is entirely different. Unlike others, I think of nonfiction when I hear the word story (my bias toward nonfiction books, etc). To answer your question, yes, I think dogs tell stories. Sniffing another dog’s butt tells a story, smelling their jowls or the site of an injection from the vet tells a story, smelling a tree or clump of grass tells a story, tracking an animal tells a story. Smells and postures and eye contact and observation all tell stories to dogs. If we’re lucky enough from time to time, we can hear part of the story, too.

    One perfect example is my old dog who was a friendly, happy-go-lucky golden. She would come to the studio with me everyday. One day I looked over at her and she had curled her lip, closed her eyes, and turned her head away as far as it could go. It was the most obvious sign of dread I had ever seen. I looked up the driveway and there was a friend coming to visit with her pug-mix. The dogs had meet several times before and the pug was pushy and snarky and not so nice, and my dog was too polite to respond. She would just wait until it was over and the pug went home, but the sight of the pug coming to visit was almost more than she could bear. Her response to seeing them from afar told a story loud and clear.

  18. liz says

    So many levels of consideration, all worthy of essays, that it’s a challenge to put into words.
    The shorthand version, in order of cognitive appearance:

    *definition of “story”- roles of expressing emotion, conditioned response, memory
    *motivation of storytelling- to influence outcomes, entertain, express
    *dynamics of intra/interspecies storytelling- Would dogs tell us stories in ways different from their own kind? Are we thought to tell stories to our dogs as well?
    *role of the listener- the “if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” question, aka in order to tell a story, must an audience be present?

    This post asks a really, really, really good question.
    All I know is that when a dog walks up to the tall grass and raises a paw, drops head, wriggles nose, then looks to me or another dog, I’ll be wondering what’s up!

  19. Peter says

    I read this question in a slightly different way, that is whether my Lab “Steve the Wonderdog” can tell himself stories to make sense of things — in effect to recognize and apply patterns in situations that are different but have similarities. And I’ve observed that he does exactly that.

    Steve is an upland bird hunting dog. Over the four seasons we’ve worked together at this, he has recognized the specific types of habitat that pheasants are most likely to be found in. For instance in an area with tall grasses, birds will tend to congregate where there is a patch of overhead brush cover. When we go together to a new area, he gravitates to those habitat types without any intentional signals from me. (Of course it is possible he is picking up subtle clues from me that I’m oblivious to, but we don’t try to control for that in the field.) This isn’t really all that surprising, because I’m sure that all predators learn to do the same thing.

    I have never thought of this as story-telling, just learning from experience. But I’m starting to think maybe that’s what story-telling really is.

  20. Beth with the Corgis says

    I tend to think not. Dogs more or less live in the moment. Jack knows all his toys by name, yet I can’t say the number of times he’s had a ball in his mouth, dropped it, stepped over the top of it, and I say to him “Jack, where’s Ultra Ball (or Tennis Ball or Jolly Ball or whatever) and he looks at me like “What a brilliant idea. Where IS ultra ball?” and starts looking for it as if he hadn’t seen it in hours. He has zero recollection that he just had it and left it directly behind himself. He goes on a hunt of discovery that eventually finds him the ball, but…. and this is probably the smartest dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.

    Don’t get me wrong, if they are highly motivated by something they both seem capable of remembering for a bit longer. If they get a brand new toy right before a walk, as soon as they get in the house they make a bee-line right for the toy. But in the everyday, they tend to live in the moment and I have trouble getting my head around how an animal that mostly lives in the present without much thought of the past and very little of the future could tell a story. A story, after all, implies a sense of thinking something through, knowing where it came from and where it’s going and putting that together in a sort of arc.

  21. Beth with the Corgis says

    By the way, one of the reasons humans tell stories is because we are capable of imagining a different reality than the one we are currently in. Stories help us practice that. I’m pretty sure that it’s one of the few areas of cognition that is unique to humans and perhaps dolphins and maybe the great apes.

    Dogs are social animals and as such have some basic ideas of self vs other, of how to manipulate objects and how to manipulate others in their social group to achieve a goal, and that is a lot more than many animals are capable of. But I think it’s a pretty long leap from that to actually imagining other realities or connecting the disparate pieces of life together into some sort of narrative.

    I think that way more people get into trouble with their dogs by seriously overestimating what they are capable of and attributing to willfulness and manipulation what is more reliably explained by simple cause-and-effect and association than the opposite. This sort of conversation makes me a bit uncomfortable because I see so SO many people speaking about dogs who “should know better” or what have you. I think that a lot of owners envision their dogs having complicated narratives going on when they do not.

  22. Annie R says

    I usually relate this jokingly, but I wonder if there’s some truth behind it: my Husky/Sheltie mix, now 14 yrs old and still very agile, does not like to be left tied outside a business when she goes along on “walking errands” with me. Although she does not bark or whine while I’m gone, when I come back, whether it’s been three minutes or thirty, and untie her leash, she “tells me the story” of her time left tied up, with a strident set of vocalizations (very Husky-like) including “chattering” at me in a mid-range tone, guttural grunts, high pitched whistles and short yips and whines, and the whole time, she is dancing back and forth on her front feet. And this goes on for 35-45 seconds, quite a long time in dog language.
    The only other time she does anything like this is when she’s been waiting for me to get ready for a walk and I’m being very slow, or keep going back to find/pick up various items I need, in which case she does the same kind of thing but only for 5-10 seconds. So I always say that after being tied up on our errands, she’s telling me the story of how stressful it was to be left alone and how unacceptable it was for me to leave her. Perhaps she really is! She is definitely at least expressing to me her upset and then relief at my coming back, and to her that is a very important story.

  23. Joanna says

    I would classify many of these stories as requests rather than storytelling… Yes, dogs can beg or ask for things (my Aster can lead me to the place where food is hidden so that I give it to him) but I wouldn’t exactly call it storytelling – it’s just expressing what they want.
    I suppose the main difficulty here is defining what “storytelling” is. If we understand it as a “description of a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events” (Wikipedia) then I would argue that reporting internal states and requesting things (I’m hungry, give me food) are not real stories. They are examples of successful communication but not all communication is storytelling.
    Perhaps it is promising to look at studies reporting active deception in animals – because the act of deception requires communication about fictious events. Check, for example Tomasello&Call “Primate Cognition”, chapter 8.1.
    And it’s misty here in Warsaw :-)

  24. says

    The question is stimulating.

    The cognitive science camp tends to observe and then conclude, “This *must* be the explanation, because I cannot think of another that fits.” The behaviorists say, “Another being’s thoughts are unknowable. We can only observe or measure behavior. We can only observe stimulus-response.”

    I tend to believe that any assumptions we make about canine thought are anthropomorphic, because we do not have a canine frame of reference. We can build our own narrative to explain canine behavior, but we have no way of knowing if dogs build narrative.

    That said, I will continue to imagine what my dog thinks, “Meat!” “Squirrel!” “Sleep…” And I will continue to ascribe a specific voice and accent to his thoughts. Don’t ask me why, but I’m convinced that Zippy, a terrier/corgi mix, speaks with a cross between a Spanish and Slavic accent.

  25. Beth with the Corgis says

    Morning is here and a thought came to me late last night after thinking about this: the danger, I think, in this line of thinking about dogs is that if dogs CAN tell stories (and I don’t think they can), then “She pees on the bed when I’m gone to get back at me for leaving her” or “He looks guilty when I come home because he knows he was wrong and he feels bad” instantly become plausible. If indeed the dog has some sort of narrative of what is going on and can create a story arc, then the sorts of plotted scenarios that people all too often use to justify THEIR OWN stories about their dogs’ activities become reasonable.

    I think it’s much more useful to think of dogs as animals who generally react to their environments in ways they have found beneficial in the past, and act to achieve goals that are more-or-less limited by attempting to achieve something in the short term that is tangible (get to food, get freedom, reach a mate or puppies) rather than in terms of animals who understand their daily actions in terms of some sort of story.

    It does not make them any less lovable or amazing, and keeps me from falling into the trap of thinking of them as little humans in fur coats, with all the drama that would entail.

  26. Frances says

    I think it depends a great deal on how you define “story”, and whether we are talking about dogs telling stories to themselves, to each other, or to us. I have been thinking about the case of a child who is “afraid of the dark”. From my own recollection, it is not the dark itself that is frightening, it is the thought of what might be lurking there. Every scary picture, every half understood remark, every TV programme watched through the crack in the door or from behind the sofa, would come back to haunt the darkness or the half light, only held at bay by superstitious rituals involving soft toys and woolly blankets. I wonder if dogs do something similar – they are aware of an emotion, pin it to something happening at the time, or that caused a similar emotion in the past, and then the cause and effect can build up to a sort of narrative that they tell to themselves

    But I think that if dogs do tell stories, it will be through tiny body movements that we so often barely see – but that occasionally they use in BIG CAPITALS so we humans can understand them. The way my dogs play reminds me very much of small children playing “let’s pretend”. “Let’s pretend I am really fierce and I’m going to steal your toy and bite your tail!”, with a play bow or a gesture implying the bit about it just being a pretence. But they have never, to my knowledge, played “Let’s pretend I’m a cat!”, or any of the other story based games children play.

  27. Lynn U. says

    What an interesting question! I’m not even sure how exactly I would define a story, but I suspect it involves linking events. When my Terv was younger he would occasionally resist getting out of the back of my station wagon when I pulled up in front of the house. The first (and second) time he did that I encouraged him to hop out, and he promptly dashed over to the neighbor’s yard to go exploring. It seems to me that in his resistance to getting out he was telling me a story: “I really want to go run around where I’m not allowed, and if I do you will be mad, so I’m just going to sit here so that I don’t go get myself in trouble.” After it happened the second time I learned that if he hesitated to get out, I should put a leash on him. Once leashed, he happily jumped out.

  28. Wendy W says

    While admitting that I don’t have enough knowledge about the subject to have anything close to a well-informed opinion, I have to think that dogs can tell stories – or at least create storylines – due to their ability to engage not only in trickery, but also in group play.

    I had a ritual with one of my prior dogs (Petie, a Rottie mix), in which I would rub his cheeks and give him a kiss on the head before I left the house. Now and then, Petie would sit down as I approached, and then scoot back a couple of inches as I bent over, luring me to move towards him as I once again reached for his head. He would continue this scoot back maneuver across the living room, through the dining room, and into the kitchen, moving me (as I pretended to be unaware of his duplicity) right next to the counter where the cookie jar was. He would then look at me and look at the cookie jar, darting his eyes back and forth until simpleton-little-me caught on and gave him a cookie.

    You’d have to do a lot to convince me that Petie he wasn’t in conversation within himself the whole time, “saying” things like, OK, move slowly… draw her in… don’t let her catch on… we’re almost there… And surely, the “I’ll bark at the imaginary intruder at the window so that my sister will get up and I can steal her spot routine” is another example of storytelling.

    I also have to think that storylines are created by dogs as they play with one another, particularly when that play features shifting styles of play. When I watch Hope play with a couple of her friends, their communication seems to be every bit as real as the unspoken dialogue within a ballet (OK, perhaps a very rowdy offshoot of ballet). Act 1: the dogs gather together, deciding who might actually be hidden as a bunny in their midst. Her disguise revealed, Hope dashes off, with the commander and his lieutenants in hot pursuit. Just as the commander comes in for the kill, Hope wheels around, pulls off her bunny disguise and reveals her true identity as an Aussie mix. Commander is then herded, while his first lieutenant stops for a good scratch, indicating that no, he is most definitely not going to be a sheep. Once corralled in the corner, look aways and body shakes are exchanged, with scene one ending as the dogs mill about, gather at the water bowl, and check in with their mommies. And then the dogs regroup for scene two, with the suspicion that once again, something is rotten in the state of Denmark…

  29. Laceyh says

    Yes, dogs “tell a story” in the sense of lying via actions. But I don’t believe they provide each other, or us, with narratives. And I agree that it seems hazardous to dogs for people to believe that they have that sort of mind. D’s “story” of the cat fight I feel was the closest thing to that I’ve seen or read, and I suspect that her dog was showing her the “new things” (cat hair clumps) rather than narrating what had happened.

  30. Frances says

    PS If you want rain, we can spare some. We can spare LOTS. I’ve practically forgotten what blue sky looks like, and the garden has been a wash out.

  31. Elizabeth says

    Em, that’s a beautiful story. I am sending it to a police officer (and dog lover) I know.

  32. Elizabeth2 says

    I teach English, I love this question! If the bare-bones definition of story is an account of actions in a time sequence, then dogs are both incredible readers and generators of story in the form of behavior chains.

    “What would dogs have to do to suggest to us that they tell themselves stories?” What about: on its own (without human coaxing), the dog would have to confront an unprecedented, complex problem, but one that does not elicit hard-wired behavior; the dog would need to come up with an accurate description of the problem; with this description in mind, the dog would have to author a sequence of original behaviors that constitute an answer to the problem.

    One summer Saturday after about eight hours’ gardening, my wife was crossing our yard to water the fruit trees, dragging the long heavy garden hose, feeling too tired and hot for this last task, when suddenly she felt the weight lighten. When she turned to look over her shoulder, our Sheltie was trotting a couple yards behind her, the hose gripped between his jaws so he could do part of the dragging for her. What had to have taken place in Finn’s mind before he gripped the garden hose, lifted it, and trotted after his beloved person? It’s not something Shelties are bred to do, wrangle garden hoses. And she hadn’t known he was there, so she wasn’t giving him clues. By himself, Finn had to have recognized a problem, maybe through reading her body language–tiredness, the stress of carrying a heavy weight–and told himself (not in words of course) something like “The heaviness of the hose causes the problem” and then something like, “This heaviness can be diminished by another lifter” and then, “I not only need to lift, I need to trot along behind her to keep the hose moving, or it will drag and be just as heavy for her.” To me it sure seems he told himself a story. And loveliest of all, the story implies an imaginative leap of the kind known in humans by the exalted name empathy: he had to be able to understand what she was feeling in order to do what he did.

  33. Beth with the Corgis says

    I am finding people’s interpretations of their dogs’ actions very interesting. When I watch my animals, though, I always do try to remind myself of Clever Hans: there is often an amazing explanation for what we see, but it may not be the answer we THINK it is! :) Dogs who bark at us at most times of day are encouraged to shush, but dogs who “talk” when we arrive home are cute and we say “Oh, tell us a story!” and they are rewarded by our engagement and so expand on the behavior. Dogs who have a strong instinctive urge to notice anything “different” in the environment because they were herders and flock dogs and herders are likely to alert us to any number of changes in the environment. And so on. What we think they are doing is charming and adds meaning to our life and to our relationship with our dogs. There are, though, other, simpler explanations.

    I DO believe dogs can mislead in order to gain advantage (play-bow when they don’t want to play to distract another dog from a desired object, for instance) but I don’t know that deception necessarily equates to story-telling in my mind. At least not the way I define story.

  34. Beth with the Corgis says

    I thought of an example of what seems like a pretty simple story but really is likely not, involving the cat.

    Usually I feed my cat first thing in the morning, early evening, and a small snack right before bed. Sometimes on the weekend we sleep in a little bit. The cat frequently starts batting our personal effects off of nightstands. This has never resulted in her being fed more quickly (I try hard to avoid such behavior traps) and so one could easily say “The cat is telling a basic story: “I usually eat by now. I’m hungry. Please get up and feed me.” It involves past (when she usually eats), present (I’m batting things to get your attention…) and future (…so you will feed me) and therefore is a mini story-arc that would help her understand her own world (she is more food-motivated than many dogs) and give her a sense of control over that world.

    Except it’s none of those things. The real explanation is more likely this: As a non-purebred domestic shorthair, descended most likely from a long line of semi-feral cats or free-breeding domestic cats, she still has an intact hunting instinct. Even though she has never been out and has only hunted the occasional moth, as a carnivore her instinct is to feel active and want to hunt when she’s hungry. However, she associates us (and not hunting) with food, so the instinct is there but misdirected.

    The reason she knocks down our personal effects is not because it gets us up to feed her (I’ve made certain it does not) but because she is lingering near us because she is hungry and people= food. Therefore, her toys are not in her line of sight. But our things are.

    If we are up and about and food is late, she will go for our ankles. Or sometimes for a poor unsuspecting Corgi’s head.

    The “narrative” is not one at all, or if there is one it’s purely internal and we have no behavioral evidence of it. She’s not saying “I’m hungry so I’ll annoy you by knocking your things til you feed me.” She’s saying “Hungry. People=food. Want to attack things” or something like that, but it’s disjointed and there is no story arc.

    That said, I’ll be interested in hearing Trisha’s views. But again, my understanding of dog cognition is that they spend little time in the past and almost none in the future (meal or walk anticipation aside) and since to me a story requires some sort of past-present-future connection, I’m not sure how probable it could be.

  35. LunaGrace says

    In an effort to expand Yogi’s vocabulary as much as possible from the time he joined the household (10 weeks of age), I started talking to him and ‘naming’ everything as we ran across it. He, being a Hound, best experiences the world through his nose. So, while we’d be driving along with his window partially down, I would tell him “Look at the TURKEY” or “Those are COWS” or “That’s a HORSE” and his nose would go immediately to the opening and he would sniffsniffsniffsniff until he had satisfied himself (I think) that was what a turkey or cow or horse smelled like. Scent experiences that seem to categorize what he crosses the trail(s) of while we are on our hikes. That said, I believe Yogi now is pretty good at his Second Language of Human Verbal. So the first time I put him in a boarding facility, I explained to him in as happy a voice as I could muster that he would be going to “Summer Camp” for a few days but that I would come back and he would have great fun while he was there. In truth, I think it was as much to calm my apprehension at leaving him as it was to get him looking forward to What Might Happen. And he seemed to have had an enjoyable time (rather than be simply relieved) when I picked him up a few days later. So I fell into the habit of telling Yogi where we are going, what we’ll be doing, who we’ll be going to see or who is coming to see us — after which he seems to pause and dig back through the index cards of his memory to come up with what I am explaining to him. When he goes to the groomer, I tell him “We are going to see Karen the Spa Lady” and he does become more happily excited because he likes Karen and his spa experiences.

    Years had gone by since we had travelled to another state to see his sister, Abby, but I told him that’s who we were going to see anyway during that drive. His reaction was ….. neutral, and I believe he was trying to remember Abby. Or her smell. And relate the word to something he had prior experience with. I think he couldn’t recall Abby or her smell UNTIL we rounded the corner leading to the long driveway to her house. Then he started zipping back and forth from the right car window to the left car window and softly whining. I don’t know how he could have known THAT something was about to happen, let alone where we were or that it would be/had been a fun experience for him, but he very eagerly bounced out of the car and, without hesitation, ran around the house to the back yard to where Abby’s kennel was. Although she happened to be in the house when we arrived.

    Yes, dogs are very much ‘in the moment’, but they are also capable of remembering or they would not be able to chain behaviours during training. And I’m sure that memory can go back a long way if they are encouraged to develop that part of their brain. Are memories ‘stories’? How extensive and complicated does a memory need to be to become a story? Isn’t that where storytelling originated? From people’s memories – embellished or not?

    The other thing that makes me think animals are capable of sharing ‘stories’ is when Baxter Cat comes into the house from his daily patrol, Yogi rushes to him and carefully goes over him with an extensive sniffing to find out where he’s been. And what he’s done? And I get the same treatment when I’ve been around another dog or dogs. Yogi stops me at the door and so thoroughly sniffs my lower trouser legs that I almost feel like I should apologize for ‘cheating’ on him! Tho’ I’ve often kidded that fire hydrants are graffiti walls for dogs, it just might be that scents tell as much of a story for dogs as words and pictures do for humans.

    Seven inches of snow here last Saturday! Our first precipitation since June 27th.

  36. says

    I certainly like to think Inka has things he wants to tell me, whether it would be classed as story-telling though, I’m not sure.

    The most obvious of his stories, for me, are the ones about night-time visitors to our garden. Whether it’s my partner or I who let him out when he has to “go”, if he sees something of interest upon returning indoors he will go to the person who stayed indoors and look at them – not with his “please can I have…” look, nor his “oooh, what are you doing” look, but it really is more of an “I have something to ‘say’” or “I know something you don’t” look, which is then backed up by that person being told a bat or an owl flew overhead, or he startled a blackbird, or similar.

  37. Essie says

    I don’t think that dogs tell stories in the way that humans think of “story”. I DO think that dogs are able to a certain extent to link recent events and understand relationships (between things, people, events). I also believe that dogs take their cues and create their narrative using the tools that they have at their disposal, e.g. sense of smell, verbal and non-verbal language, environmental cues. In other words, when they meet a dog they get a variety of information, e.g. playbow! happy! good smells, smells like the fire hydrant down the street, ooh you had a yummy breakfast, good human but his feet smell strange, look a squirrel! My thought is that a dog will take all this information and assimilate to form a cohesive train of thought. Since dogs live in the moment, that train of thought is likely an ongoing assimilation of new incoming information with older information dropping off and new incoming information providing the basis for the continuing narrative.

    The narrative that we humans tell about our lives goes back years, but I think that for dogs the length of memory is less actual memory and more associative. In other words, two dog friends are less likely to remember Hey what about that smell we enjoyed when we got together two weeks ago, remember how cool those people were who stopped to play with us, etc. Rather, I think dogs associate certain doggie friends with good things/fun (in the same way they are conditioned to associate the sound of keys jangling with their owner leaving the house) which is reinforced by the current ongoing behavior of play bows and happy body language.

    Wonderful question to ponder, but I think the problem is that we humans have to be very careful not to project our own narrative onto our dogs and of course it is almost impossible not to anthropomorphize when considering whether dogs tell stories. I guess in short, yes, I think they do, but we must understand that it likely won’t be in the way we think.

  38. Kerry M. says

    I’m a skeptic on the dog story-telling front, but one thing is very clear to me: we LOVE stories. Sometimes this is bad, such as when dominance-based training just won’t go away. It is, after all, a much better story.

    I really enjoyed the stories above, but I’m not convinced that the dog had the same narrative of events that we did. I am a fan of Occam’s Razor and do try to go for the simplest explanation when I think about it. But I’ll tell you that in my day-to-day life, I use stories to explain my dog’s behavior. Kids were flying a lighted helicopter in front of my house last night, and I told myself the story that my dog must have thought we were being invaded by aliens. Not because I thought he had any concept of that, but just because it was something that made sense to me to be very scared of, so I could relate better to his extreme fear and anxiety.

    I like stories. I use them myself to explain my dog’s behavior (sometimes even ridiculously), but I don’t think I’ve seen evidence of it from my dogs themselves.

  39. Donna B. says

    I don’t know if dogs tell stories, but they can certainly communicate the significance of events to others. I got my first wolfhound when I was twelve, and came home on the big yellow school bus. Every day, Molly would sit and watch at the window and wait for me to get off the bus and walk home. Eventually I went to college, Molly was long gone and school busses were long past. Yet for many wolfhound generations, they would get all excited when they saw or heard a school bus. I would like to tell you that now in my fifties my current wolfhounds do this, but alas, the reaction has been lost at some point in time. However, it was impressive that it was “culturally transmitted” as long as it was, through generations of hounds that had never seen me get off a school bus. I wonder if Molly “told” the next generation of wolfhounds exactly why school busses were significant, and if they in turn “told” the next ones why school busses were important, or just that they were?

  40. Janice in Ga says

    My first Aussie, Sasha, was an amazing dog.

    One night when I pulled into the driveway, Sasha and my other dog Ivan surprised me by running out of the bushes, OUTSIDE the 6′ wooden privacy fence where we lived. After praising them both for NOT running off down the road, I put Ivan inside and asked Sasha to show me where they’d gotten out of the fence. She watched me closely as I talked and walked around the yard. Then she went up to the fence and nosed the loose board where they’d slipped out. Was she telling me a story? Maybe. I was flabbergasted that she went almost directly to the loose spot.

    I praised her hugely, and fixed the fence.

    The other dog, Ivan, used to do what we called “dog art.” He’d start by playing with his metal food dish (“dish hockey”), sliding it around the kitchen floor. Then he’d pile things on it. We couldn’t watch him do it, because he’d stop if he saw us watching. We were able to get a picture of one of his assemblages, though:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/archergal5129/4310606306/
    The dish, the stool, and the towels were all his doing. (And that’s Ivan in the picture.) Maybe that was some kind of dog story he was telling. :)

    There’s a science fiction story by Kij Johnson called “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” that I commend to you. If animals were suddenly able to talk, what kind of stories WOULD they tell? And how would people react to them?

    Good stuff.

  41. Opal H. says

    I work in early childhood, and we use children’s storytelling to assess language and emotional development. There are predictable stages of storytelling that children pass through as they mature, and having a child tell us a story gives us great insight into what they understand about the world. The difficulty in translating this skill to dogs is that all of our human storytelling revolves around language.

    If I watch my German shepherd carefully when I first let her out in the morning, I think that she is using her sense of smell to create a story of what critters were in the yard at night. She follows the scent trail (in winter I can see that she is following footprints), stops where another animal stopped, then continues on until the trail leaves the yard. She can probably recreate the sequence of where the stupid squirrel entered the yard, where it dug up stuff, and where it left the yard; the difference is that Georgia uses scent.

  42. Kathy says

    I have no idea whether dogs tell stories, but I can tell you this: the story Em told about Otis’s reaction to men in uniform and the (proposed) reasons behind it made me cry a few of those “oh yay, a happy ending to a sad story” tears.

  43. says

    So I’m sitting on the loveseat, which has room for me & one big dog, & my dog Sallie is up there with me. Because it’s finally a rainy weekend in Wisconsin & there’s no sunlight to lie in, my old dog Luna wants Sallie’s warm spot. She goes over to the toy basket, selects one of Sallie’s favorite toys, & trots around the house with it. She presents it to Sallie, then grabs it & runs off. She lies on the floor right in front of Sallie playing with the toy, although at almost fifteen she rarely plays with anything. She leaves the toy there & retreats, keeping an eye on Sallie to see if she’ll take the bait.

    Of course it’s a chain of behaviors which has been reinforced by a desired outcome in the past. Still, watching her decide she that wants to sit with me, identify the problem, pause to think about a solution, & then head for the toy basket suggests at least what Wendy calls “creating a storyline.” Sure it’s anthropomorphic, but it’s hard not to imagine her thinking some doggy equivalent of “I know what might work”. She may see a series of images in her “mind’s eye,” different approaches she could use to try to lure Sallie off that couch. She knows how it unfolded in the past. It’s as though she knows that story from beginning to end.

  44. liz says

    “Is there research on non-verbal humans or other species that could add to our inquiry?”
    I keep coming back to Alex the parrot for clues to suggest that he, or any animal, could tell internal stories…
    Perhaps the closest implication of an internal narrative is suggested by Alex expressing surprise or displeasure when a hidden object was different than he expected. If Alex had an expectation of something strong enough to create displeasure when presented with a different outcome, then it’s possible that his emotion was caused by reality being out of line with the story he had told himself regarding what was supposed to happen.
    In this sense, internal narrative would form expectation, and the ability to express emotion would be a gauge as to whether the expectation was met.
    This does leave room for questioning how expectations are formed, and whether or not expectation is truly linked to internal narrative as representing ‘how the world makes sense.’
    The search for answers to these questions reminds me of a dog trying to find a hidden toy. It’s exciting even when I’m frustrated and hoping for a hint, but still a fun, satisfying quest overall.

  45. Laceyh says

    I think Donna B.’s anecdote is the closest we can come to a dog’s “telling a story” to another dog, which is surely a necessary prerequisite to telling a story to another species, such as us. But this is not a story – just an association: school bus is interesting, not girl used to come on school bus. A dog can communicate fear or pleasure to another, which is a great help when a secure dog shows a new foster that this home is full of good things.

  46. Leslie V says

    I haven’t sorted out whether I believe dogs can tell stories or simply that I want that to be so. What I do know is that in the 42+years I have had animals, I find the more I am open to possibilities of what the animals are capable of doing, the more enriched my relationship becomes. There was a time (way back when) the training methods and approaches were different. Yes they worked but were they right? We have thankfully found better methods that generate much improved results and make both human and animal lives better. I do not think of my dogs (or horses, or cats) as people in fur. I love and respect them for the creatures they are and perhaps find myself believing that within their own frameworks, they do tell stories. If I am open to that possibility, why is it hard to imagine that as our relationship grows, we find ways to “tell our stories” to each other in a way we both understand and take joy in….

  47. D says

    This has been such an interesting thread! Then of course, they all are…

    Laceyh may be correct that my dog was simply identifying something new (piles of cat fur) in my previous post, but I still think her distress was due to the cat fight. As with most Border Collies, my girl likes “order” around the house and is always stressed if the cats, or anyone else, doesn’t get along.
    (But of course, she may have been distressed, but still just pointing out something new and not trying to narrate the cat fight as I had interpreted.)

    So here’s another example of her ability to communicate her side of , but first a question – How long does it have to be to qualify as a “story?” This example is short.

    One day I left my dog with my elderly mother, who was at home and nearing hospice care. My plan was to leave my dog there while I was at work. My sister tells this story: She stopped by to check on Mom and make her dinner, and Mom was sound asleep in her recliner. She let my dog out, and told her to “go pee” (her command), but my dog just stood there looking like she was hoping for a walk. “Sorry sweetie, I don’t have time for a walk today.” my sister told her conversationally. “I need you to go pee so I can cook dinner for Grammie.” At that point, my dog walked to the edge of the lawn and sniffed some grass, then looked up at my sister. “Did you already go pee?” my sister asked. My dog wagged her tail, and trotted back to the house. A little while later, my brother showed up, and mentioned he’d been there recently. My sister asked if he had taken the dog out to pee, and he said yes. Intrigued, she asked WHERE the dog had peed, and my brother said “at the edge of the lawn near that giant hosta.” The exact spot where my dog had sniffed. My sister was convinced that my dog had responded to her command to “go pee” with the answer “I already peed, right over here.”

  48. Beth with the Corgis says

    Janice, I love your picture of Ivan’s “art”. That is fascinating! My first thought is he’s gathering things he feels might be important in “his” dish (stashing), but how about that stool? lol. Any special importance to him of the stool? It’s not usually something dogs attach importance to.

    Liz, you make some interesting observations about Alex. My response was particular to dogs, based on how dogs seem to live (more in the moment). For other animals, I would personally tend to think that the great apes, crows, dolphins, and possibly elephants are all capable of telling stories. These seem to be animals that have an actual culture and teach members of their group their own culture. Cultural traits vary considerably from group to group. New culture usually arises from young adults and spreads to the rest of a group from there. It seems to me to be logical that being able to actively teach other animals of your group complex skills (as opposed to observational learning with presumably no intent on the “teacher’s” part, which dogs ARE capable of) of necessity involves some sort of story telling.

    Here’s something I found interesting: in googling most intelligent animals, there are some scientific lists that have horses listed above dogs, and others in which horses don’t even make the list at all. I’d be interested in seeing some definitive source on that…

  49. jackied says

    I’m with Beth. I don’t think dogs have a sufficiently developed sense of identity, sufficient self-awareness to deliberately communicate a narrative. I

    To me deliberate communication is an essential part of story-telling, it’s not just running through a sequence in one’s own head, and I’m not at all sure that dogs can do that anyway!

    They can remember things, sure, places and people and events. It’s entirely possible that Otis remembers the kind policeman, but I doubt very much that he remembers it as a sequential narrative (I was cold and lonely and then the man came and then I got in the car and then he gave me a donut and…) and certainly not as a narrative that he can communicate to someone else. Humans are obsessive storytellers and we are projecting that onto our animals. We will even be reinforcing behaviour that looks like storytelling.

    My dog Lucy ‘tells a story’ to my other dog. But she’s not telling him a story. She’s learned by reinforcement that if she pokes him with her paw and dances about as if she wants to play he’ll get up to start playing and then she can steal his warm bed. It is very cute, but… if it was a deliberate, thought out action surely she would extrapolate it to getting other things she wanted from him, not just the bed. Instead she glares and barks.

    The only one of the ‘stories’ described above that makes me doubt this is the person whose BC showed her all the piles of cat fur and then the cat, and I can easily construct a theory based on the dog following the cat’s scent, and that the act of tracking imposed a sequence which the owner perceived as a story.

  50. Cindy says

    When I was a kid, I read a wonderful book written in the 1940s or ’50s about a boy who was bedridden for a year. His dog would go out every day and come back, jump on the boy’s bed and the boy could learn the story of where the dog had gone and what he had done all day by the smells, stickers or leaves attached to his fur, the mud on his feet, etc. Each day was a new story of the dog’s day and the boy got to live those outings and adventures through his dog. It was illustrated with great pictures of the dog romping around and then jumping on the boy’s bed at the end of the day and the boy finding all the clues of where he had been. That dog certainly told the boy many stories and taught the reader that stories are told in many ways, even without words. I so wish I could remember the name of that book!!

  51. Trisha says

    Wow. I just spent the morning re-reading all of your comments, and yes, your stories about your dogs. Talk about using stories to make sense of the world… I’m even more grateful than ever to be in a conversation with such thoughtful, articulate people. I’ve got to switch focus now and work on some upcoming speeches, but you haven’t heard the last of this by any means. For now, thank you, thank you. You have added immeasurably to the section of the book I am writing, not to mention exercising my brain in truly wonderful ways.

  52. Beth with the Corgis says

    Just read something last night that made me think of this. Don’t dogs flunk the mirror test? If you paint a dot on an animal and then set them in front of a mirror, if they react to the dot it implies self-awareness. I’m pretty sure dogs consistently fail this test.

    I would think this would be relevant. While dogs use smell as a primary sense, they are highly visual as we can all attest, and their total lack of interest in the mirror test must tell us something, if we are to be objective.

  53. Mireille says

    “The crowd looked doubtful. They hadn’t read as many stories as Malicia, and they were rather more attached to the experience of real life, which is that when someone small and righteous takes on someone big and nasty, he is grilled bread product, every time.” ~Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

    Sorry, just had to quote Terry Pratchett who in his novels has quite a lot to say abut stories, their power and the -sometimes mistaken- belief of people in them.
    Second quote; People wanted the world to be a story, because stories had to sound right and they had to make sense. People wanted the world to make sense.

    Do dogs need stories for the wordl to make sense or do they just accept it the way it is? What are stories? Is a story a way of telling what happened or do you mean stories as an attempt to give meaning to things in life, to generalize concepts. I think dogs are apt communicators, they can tell us what they want, as in wanting a cookie, a drink, go out. They sense changes, they know when something out of the ordinary is happening. Like when we go on holliday, even before we started packing, they are getting restless. They know something is going to happen. Sometimes they get to come with us, sometimes not. I do not see any difference in the way they act, perhaps I am to dense or perhaps they enjoy coming with us just as much as the chance of spending time with doggie friends.
    Dogs have memories, of places where they have been, what happened there ( thatplace where we saw that rabbit, smelled that cat). In the car, every time we approached a place that Chenak liked to go, he would start singing softly in the car. Could be a place we went for walks , or the breeder where he came from and got to play with his old friends, or a place he thought would be worthwhile. Our dogs are in the back of the car, in a crate and cannot see all that much, but he would always know if we came near. That day, as we approached the place, Chenak started singing but then there was a roadblock, we kind of lost our way in the detour and got lost. With a very suprises noise Chenak stopped. So he had a sequence of events in his head, anticipating where we were heading and noticed that it was not happening. He also enjoyed going new places, os if we drove somewhere unfamiliar and would start slowing down, twisting and turning, he would also start to sing in anticipation of what gould may come of this. This might be construed as a general concept, a generalisation and therefore a story? Not sure though.
    Because although Chenak mever ceased to surprise us and was very apt at training and conditioning us, what I miss is the dog dog connection. Although excitement can be catching between dogs, that is at the moment it is happening. I have been taking my current two dogs on seperate walks,and althouhg they do interact when I get back, I can’t see that involves telling one anothe things. F.i. if I take Spot and he spots a rabbit and I then take Shadow on the same route, he’ll show no outward signs of being excited to get there.
    By the way, about the power of stories, reminds me of Terry Pratchett, my favourite author. He wrote a parody on Cinderella, or how it is more challenging to prevent the poor serving girl with the wicked sisters to marry the prins. He mentions the power of stories, stating that urban myths are true and that they keep happening all the time. It is how it should be and I do not think (hope) dogs are prone to want to fit into conventionality.

    Long post, spent eight hours driving, or more correct being driven trough pouring rain in France. Can we send you some rain? Today however was a glorious sunny autumn day here in the Netherlands.

    Mireille

  54. Mireille says

    By the way, Beth, some dogs do recognise themselves in mirrors, fi Merle from Merle’s door.
    Mireille

  55. Frances says

    I’ve been thinking about the power of stories to deal with trauma – there is something about turning experience into words, whether spoken or written, that makes it more distant and more manageable. I am sure there is any amount of research that explains how and why, but it is probably something we have all experienced. Perhaps this is something we can harness working with our dogs – we tell ourselves a story, or describe a situation – “Jilly dog is a bad tempered little dog, and takes her temper out on other dogs. One day she will hurt one badly, and I will be responsible…” Or, as we know, we can change the story “Jilly dog is a perfectly normal, sweet natured terrier who doesn’t like other dogs in her space, especially spaniels and rude adolescents. As long as I keep my promise to protect her from them, and let her keep her distance, we will be fine.” Changing the story changes how I deal with the situation; it also changes how Jilly deals with it, as she can relax and leave it to me. Can we/do we, through the way we work with dogs, teach them different “stories” – different expectations of cause and effect?

    Sometimes, of course, stories can be too powerful – I love Mireille’s references to Terry Pratchett! Some stories wear so deep a groove into human minds that we expect them against all the evidence of our experience – David and Goliath, Cinderella, the Dominant dog …

  56. Wendy W says

    I’m been thinking about what Beth wrote about other animals and cultures, with some of those who live in social groups probably having storytelling abilities due to the need to communicate certain aspects of their culture to their young. I wonder if dogs are more or less unique among animals, given their willingness to embrace the culture of the “other,” namely us. This choice places them in the role of listeners rather than speakers, with those of our culture so often undervaluing the contributions of listeners. But I believe that the ability to find meaning within a story is generally greater among listeners, suggesting a capacity that would not be apparent to us as speakers. Perhaps our dogs engage in a great deal of storytelling as they interpret our messages and quietly create the explanations that allow them to serve so ably and so lovingly at our sides.

  57. em says

    I find many of the arguments against dog storytelling quite compelling. I myself doubt very highly that dogs think in terms of epic adventures or convoluted rationalizations. I also doubt that they spend much time reflecting on unprompted memories. I really don’t think that my dogs sit around on a Saturday afternoon reminiscing about “that time last winter when we all peed on the snowman” (though, devil’s advocate, how would I know?).

    I also see the danger of attributing too much capacity for abstract rationalization to dogs- people DO tend to overestimate the intentionality of bad behavior, for example.

    My disagreement is really semantic, more than anything. To me, the question was really about narrative at its most basic level, the stage at which stimuli becomes rationally organized and understood as meaningful. I think dogs DO have the ability to think in this way, even if only in a limited capacity. I would also suggest, that by my very broad definition, many, many animals are able to think in this way.

    Studies have shown that dogs have a concept of ‘fairness’ and will react or disengage if they feel they are being treated unfairly. I doubt very much that dogs reflect on hierarchy and equality and abstact notions of social justice, but how is it possible to understand something like ‘fair’ without some internal concept of the way things ‘should’ be? ‘Should’, to me is a narrative- a very basic story that is not a perception of the world as it is, but of an imagined ideal against which their perceptions of the real world can be compared.

    Predictive behavior is another example, to me, of the ability to form narrative. A dog who tricks another dog into giving up a stick or a preferred spot gives every indication of doing so in a calculated effort to attain their goal. How is it possible to make and execute such a plan without the ability to imagine what might happen (but has not happened yet)? To me, ‘If I do -then they might do’ is a tiny story, too.

    Memory is another sticky wicket. As human beings, our brains take in incalcuable quantities of information every day, yet very little of this information is recallable as memory. Even extremely familiar things, like the number of paces from my driveway to my front door, which I percieve every day, I cannot at this moment remember – even though some part of my brain did recieve this information. There are lots of different types of memory, but conscious memory requires more than just perception, it seems to me- it requires the ability to understand stimuli in an organized way. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a sophisticated contemplation, but it does require the ability to think ABOUT stimuli, and interpret their meaning to the rememberer.

    Clearly, humans have much better memories than dogs. But dogs DO form memories. At least when prompted, they can recall things that they saw, heard, smelled or did. They can and do predict that an object, once seen, will appear again in the same place. They show surprise when things are not the way that they expect them to be. They make judgements and display emotional reactions based on past experiences. To me, this in another example of internal narrative- an internal story about the way things are that might or might not match reality. Of course it is impossible to know exactly how this plays out in a dog’s head, but it looks very much like conscious (if basic) thought.

    As with humans, emotional context seems to play a crucial role in memory formation for dogs. Dogs who experience extreme fear show a tremendous ability to chain backwards, remembering every detail of events that may have presaged the frightening episode, even those that are not directly related. To do this, they must be able to remember and reflect on events. ‘Last time the sky got dark and then the pressure dropped the SUPERSCARY THUNDER happened’ is a story.

    A piece of food given to a hungry dog is remembered much more vividly than one given to a well-fed pet, even if the dog himself is not consciously aware of why the memory and positive association is so much more powerful. Though they may lack the ability for true self-reflection, I suspect dogs do remember emotional context as well as specific events- That guy gave me a cookie! I was sad and then I was happy!

    To Otis, his conscious story may not be any more involved than, ‘Policeman! Very Good!’, but that WOULD be a story, by my reckoning.

  58. Mireille says

    On contemplation in humans; recent studies among medical docters on ‘gut feeling’ (not sure exactly how to translate it, in Dutch it’s called ‘niet pluis gevoel’ the feeling you get that when seeing a patient or hearing a patient’s story the alarmbells start ringing) is something to be trusted. Not because ‘trusting feelings’ but because it is an unconscious integration of information from all your senses, combined with past experiences. It is a story that is ‘not right’. So going back to other animal species, how much sophisticated contemplation and conscious thought do we use? How much of pur descision making is not based on pur rational thought but on our subconscious integration of information?

    Mireille

    For those interested the reference ; Gut Feelings as a Third Track in General Practitioners’ Diagnostic Reasoning, Journal of General Internal Medicine (J Gen Intern Med 2010; 26 (2): 197-203

  59. Lisa W says

    Reading Em’s last post brought two ideas to mind: “Clearly, humans have much better memories than dogs. But dogs DO form memories.”

    I’d say that some dogs have better memories than some humans. At least most of the dogs and some of the humans I have known. Knowing a road that they haven’t been on for a while, a trail that has been marked and rained or snowed on, a person they only met once, a pattern of events, those are sure memories.

    Also, she writes: “As with humans, emotional context seems to play a crucial role in memory formation for dogs. Dogs who experience extreme fear show a tremendous ability to chain backwards, remembering every detail of events that may have presaged the frightening episode, even those that are not directly related. To do this, they must be able to remember and reflect on events. ‘Last time the sky got dark and then the pressure dropped the SUPERSCARY THUNDER happened’ is a story.”

    If dogs can have PTSD, and I believe they can, and now live with a dog who has some pretty powerful PTSD responses, than why can’t they have stories or be able to retain a story if not actually retell it?

    I know my dog has stories in her head, we just have a language barrier.

  60. Beth with the Corgis says

    Interesting theories about what it means that dogs can back chain fearful (or very pleasant) events. It does not take many vacations for a dog to learn that suitcases = your leaving, or many hiking trip to realize what those boots are for. One of mine back-chained the scary sound of the smoke alarms going off to us turning the stove’s exhaust fan on the high speed (counter conditioning quickly fixed this).

    However, I believe that associative learning belongs to a very primitive part of our brain. I seemed to recall that even some insects can learn this way, and found this quick summary:

    http://insects.about.com/od/behaviorcommunication/f/caninsectslearn.htm

    I don’t think that it requires conscious reflection to back-chain events. In fact, in humans it is recognized that the reason things like PTSD are so hard to treat is BECAUSE they are part of a primitive, instinctual way of facing the world. The reason talk therapy can help (along with behavior modification and medications) is that by telling stories we regain a sense of control, and start to move past our more primitive, associative learning.

  61. Beth with the Corgis says

    And according to this, headless (!!) cockroaches can exhibit operant conditioning:

    http://what-when-how.com/insects/learning-insects/

    Oh my! Who comes up with these things? Still, a powerful reminder that associative responses are not a higher-level function.

    Recognizing important landmarks and who is stranger vs who is acquaintance are also strongly instinctive (again, social insects know who is in the colony and who is a stranger). Great migrations are taken by animals both primitive and highly advanced.

    How these things happen are still a mystery to science, in many cases, but the fact remains that animals without much reasoning ability at all are equally adept at these sorts of tasks.

  62. Kat says

    Reading the comments I think the key is how we define a “story” I have a pretty broad definition in mind. A story as I’m thinking of it is a sequencing of events that influences behavior. “If you sit and give me eye contact I will release you though this open door allowing you to do things you really like” is a story that I tell me dogs several times a day. I don’t spell it out in so many words the way I just did for the purposes of this post but that narration captures the story I tell them through my behavior and by now even our damaged dog knows her part in the story and offers the required behavior so she can go out and someone will play ball with her. When Finna offers my husband a sit for treats she’s sequencing the events sitting in front of Dad earns treats and perhaps weighing that story against the story barking at Dad gets nothing.

    I don’t believe dogs have a verbal narrative running in their heads the way most people do. I don’t think dogs apply their own interpretations to human behavior the way humans apply their own motives and interpretations to explain motive in other’s behaviors. I don’t think motive enters into it at all with dogs. In other words my dogs don’t tell themselves that I gave them treats because I’m a nice person that loves to make them happy. My dogs story would be based on cause and effect sit by the Mom lady and look longingly and I’ll probably get a treat. Why doesn’t matter to the dog only what. The story “I did this and good things happened” is why a dog learns to repeat behavior that was rewarded.

    Probably the closest I can come to the kind of story that I think is like a story a dog would tell themselves would be a pool player lining up a shot. We know that there is a great deal of complex math that describes the process of hitting a ball with a stick so that it hits another ball into a hole on the edge of a table. People who play pool don’t perform the complex math they simplify that into a more instinctive “story” of hitting the cue ball with just the right amount of force, in the right spot at the correct angle to transfer the momentum to the other ball in such a way as to make it fall in the pocket. This is a story that’s being told in muscle memory rather than in words but it’s a powerful story that the player has repeated many times with many variations and adjustments.

    Again, the criticism that my definition of what a story is may be overly broad is perhaps justified but I watch my dogs and their behavior clearly shows an ability to sequence events and for that sequencing to have an effect on their actions. When Ranger offers a behavior that has earned him treats in the past to a stranger he can smell has food he’s telling himself the story that behaving like this in the presence of people with food has often resulted in me getting yummy treats. When a dog sees another dog getting treats and copies the behavior that is earning the treats that dog is telling itself the story that doing this earns the other dog treats if I do that I might get treats too. The dog has an expectation that if they do the same thing as the dog being treated they will also receive treats. It’s not a story at the verbal level people use but it is a behavioral story told in sequenced events, (observe, desire, copy, get treats) that influence behavior.

  63. Carole says

    One way of defining an element of story is cause and effect, or what happens next? As a film editor, I constantly ask myself what I want to see next, what event will drive the story along? ‘If this, then that’ is one way to describe it. While I doubt my dog is thinking consciously about that narrative device, I do believe she does consider cause and effect. I have watched her check out soccer-sized balls to see if she can pick them up in the same way she picks up her favourite large treat ball by wedging a fang in the hole and gripping with her lower jaw. S0 “if there’s a hole in the top of this ball, then I can pick it up”. She also will drop a kong from the top of the stairs to knock out a stuck treat, and in a new place will look around for the right kind of spot to achieve the same end. That may be described as association or learned behaviour – I don’t know enough about this to possibly define it in those terms – but I have watched her do these and other things with great consideration. Much like a small child describes simple events in rudimentary terms, perhaps dogs have a similar although lesser capacity. Perhaps their narratives have no middle, just a beginning and an ending, and perhaps they are unable to string very many of these small elements together, but this is a building block in story-telling in humans.

    And I always wonder about the assumption that dogs have no long term memory. If they don’t, how do they retain anything at all? Does learning by repetition go away if the learning is not continually repeated? How do we explain the reactions dogs have when re-united with long absent family? This is little story is about memory but also is a dog story, told to me, by my dog. :) When I left home for university, my Norwegian Elkhound remained with my parents. The first time I came home after 5 months away, she stood and stared at me, completely frozen for a moment, then ran at me, leapt all round and didn’t stop talking for hours. I have to define it as talking because she used every kind of vocalizing possible, even making sounds we’d never heard before. We were convinced she was telling me everything that had happened since I’d been gone. It was complete with running to the door and barking, as if to be let out, but when we’d move to comply, she’d run back to the room and do something different, like find a toy and bring it to me, or snuggle into my lap, chortling and murmuring the whole time. She go to the window and look out intently, turn and ‘tell’ me something, then move on to something else. This behaviour continued over the years, less dramatically over time, but she always gave me the distinct impression that she was describing everything I’d missed. She was telling me her story.

  64. Alissa says

    When I read this post it made me think of the “Dog Shaming” pictures that keep popping up on e-mail forwards, Pinterest, and Facebook. Personally, I think they’re sad. The “shamed dog” owners spend a lot of time writing the dog’s story and positioning the usually miserable-looking dog in their mess…There must be a better way to change unwanted behavior than shame! And, frankly, I don’t think the dogs would tell always tell the same story if they were able to tell why they got into the trash, destroyed the couch, etc. I believe that humans put a lot of their own thoughts and emotions into trying to understand what dogs think and do (i.e. the humans took away the dog’s toy so the dog got mad and ripped into the trash).

  65. jackied says

    I have just found an article in New Scientist 6th November on memory, which briefly discusses memory in animals. It says that many animals have good short and long term memory, and puzzle solving ability, but episodic memory, which is what we are discussing here, is likely to be much rarer. There are convincing studies that show that western scrub jays, bonobos and orang-utans can imagine the future and plan ahead (an important consequence of having episodic memory), and at least one anecdotal example in a chimp.

    However the article points out that not many animals have been tested for this yet. Studies using brain scans in rats have shown activity in the hippocoampus which _might_ indicate that they also have premeditation and therefore episodic memory, but this is not confirmed.

    I’ts also occurred to me that some things a dog appears to remember/predict in sequence may be more like muscle memory in humans – the kind of flow that means a dancer can perform a set choreography or a pianist play without music, yet they are unable to construct the sequence verbally and if they start thinking about it, everything falls apart.

  66. says

    One time on a road trip I was stopped at a tiny diner in the desert and this friendly old woman at the table next to me told me this story about her Basenji named Sandy.

    The woman’s husband was bed-ridden for the last 6 months of his life. She made him a prescription breakfast every morning, which had to be microwaved. So every morning she would put Sandy’s breakfast in her bowl, and then take her husband’s food and put it in the microwave. As soon as she started the microwave, Sandy would push her bowl across the floor to the counter and look imploringly from her dish to the woman to the microwave.

    “No, Sandy. I will not microwave your breakfast for you.” And Sandy would dance around and plead for a while until the woman had said no 4 or 5 times. Then Sandy would collapse on the floor in desperation. Every morning, the woman would call back to her husband down the hall, “Uh oh! Looks like Sandy died! Whatever should we do with her!” and her husband would call back, “I guess we’ll have to make Sandy soup!”

    Sandy would keep lying there perfectly still while the woman got out the broom and dustpan, all the while talking loudly about how she was going to sweep up poor dead Sandy and make her into soup. At the last minute, Sandy would jump up and shake herself off, grinning, as if to say, “Just kidding! I’m not dead!” And then she would happily eat her (unmicrowaved) breakfast.

    They did this every morning for 6 months. (I assume that it evolved over time, and didn’t spring forth fully formed, but the woman didn’t specify.)

    I told that story to a dog-savvy friend of mine, and she exclaimed, “That dog knows how to tell a joke!” And I thought, she’s right, that is exactly what that is. It’s like a really complicated knock-knock joke, where you have to get the other person to respond correctly in order to get to your punchline. The woman didn’t strike me as the sort of person who would have understood how to reinforce or mold behavior like that from her dog, so it made sense to me that the dog shaped her behavior as much as she shaped Sandy’s. It was a jointly-invented joke.

  67. Angel says

    I just read this post and started reading through the comments. What popped into my head is cave paintings. Cave paintings from so long ago, made by civilizations that no longer exist, tell a story, right? And they are images. I think stories can come in different forms.

    Dogs may not form stories of words in their minds, but I think they have stories of images and smells in their minds. So they tell stories to themselves. And we know they communicate with each other and with us. We may not understand it, but that doesn’t mean they’re not telling us a story.

  68. Melly Mel says

    I am certain dogs tell stories. Some are better than others. Our beagle, Cody, whenever we take him to the vet and he has to go to the back without us, when he comes back to the room I say “welcome back” and I ask “how are you” and he normally gives me an angry look or a thank goondness look, then I ask him “how was it back there” and as soon as I ask, I get a long following of short and long barks that range in pitch and volume and sound exactly like a conversation with Charlie Brown’s teacher. He will only “tell” his recount once and it does not repeat. I just nod and say “uh huh” and “wow really?” and he keeps going until he is done. He also does a similar behavior when we tell him repeatedly that he can not do something like be up on the bed, he then gives us the dirtiest look,concedes and then takes refuge under the bed where he proceeds to sound like an angry Charlie Brown teacher…if you look under the bed he stops and looks at you as if to say “what” and then when you drop the bed skirt, it starts right back up until he is done. Dogs tell stories!

  69. says

    First of all, although I wanted to say YES, reading through the posts above, I too wondered if they were really dogs telling stories or asking for something. Then I thought – what is a story? It begins ‘Once upon a time…’ and I am sure dogs do this. Dogs that fence run for fun – one is not defending its territory because he will come out from the fence and be best friends – they are playing at a game, and for it to be a game, you have to share a story. Dogs that jump because of a bag fluttering on a fence – the first glance from the side of their eye, yes that is the reaction of a wild animal that has been hunted, but once they see what it is, and pretend jump and attack, that is a game and therefore a story. My dogs used to have a chasing game with swifts – there was never any danger, and we would start with one or two birds, then more would join in and there was no aggression, no danger, it was play. When dogs sleep and their legs pedal, and they yip, that can’t just be physical reaction surely? I am sure it is a dream, and therefore a story. I think dogs live in the present, but they have good memories, and as humans when we remember something, we embroider it, and I believe that dogs do the same

  70. Elizabeth says

    I’m not a behaviorist and I can see this is a very complex issue and it’s easy to deceive ourselves about what’s really going on. So, for what it’s worth (not much!), here are my stories.

    My first dog was nearly 11 years old when I got him and wise in the ways of humans whereas I knew nothing about dogs and dog training. Every time I tried to modify his behavior, he would turn it into a game. Here’s an example. We often walked off-leash through our neighborhood. He would usually be a bit ahead of me. When he came to a corner, I would usually tell him to “wait” but sometimes I forgot. Often he would wait anyway but sometimes he would just choose the direction that didn’t involve crossing a street and continue walking. I decided that when he did this I would stop at the corner and wait until he realized I wasn’t following. When he noticed, he’d grin (I swear) and come running back to me and we’d head in a different direction. Well, we did this a few times and then, one day, I came to the corner first, chose a direction and kept walking. Part way down the block, I realized he wasn’t with me. There he was standing at the corner laughing at me (I swear). It turned into a wonderful game of “who’s paying attention?” So is this creativity? Is it humor and/or a game? Are those things elements of storytelling?

    On the other hand, my second dog has some pretty serious mental health issues. He’s dog aggressive and can be nervous around people. With the help of a lot of good trainers, he’s made amazing progress in incremental steps. At first, it was every dog, on-leash/off-leash, large or small, dark or light, close or blocks away. Then after months of work with seemingly little progress, one day, a jack russell came charging up to him barking ferociously and my dog ignored him! Suddenly little dogs were ok. Over time, he became tolerant of most dogs smaller than him (he’s a BC). Then it became apparent that he was still intolerant of dogs larger than him EXCEPT for golden retrievers (what a testament to the disposition of goldens). Now he tolerates all but the giant breeds (especially if they’re dark colored) most of the time. If this was a human, I’d say his internal voice – the story he tells himself to make sense of the world – had changed from “ALL DOGS BAD” to “all dogs bad except small dogs” to “big dogs bad except goldens” to “dogs mostly ok except really big, scary, dark colored dogs”.

  71. says

    I wonder if the “self-annointing” behavior that dogs exhibit when they come across something nasty is actually something like story telling. I wonder if the reason why they roll in things that smell atrocious actually is a way of carrying the smell to other dogs so they can share it with them.

    Maybe a smelly postcard?

  72. Greta says

    Janice in GA, your story reminded me of a friend’s Aussie. He is a very cute little Aussie, but not a particularly imaginative, bright or gifted one, in general. However, on two occasions, he has performed “squirrel funerals.” He places his frisbee over the squirrel remains and then piles other available items on top of the squirrel.

    Not as ornate as your dog’s amazing sculpture, but quite similar. How very interesting they are.

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