Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Wisdom Wednesday :: Is Your Dog a Pessimist?

A British veterinary study reported in the New York Times finds that dogs who have separation anxiety can demonstrate what the researchers call “pessimism” — a more enduring state of negative emotion.

We’ve known for a long time that dogs are capable of complex emotions. As mentioned in my entry from yesterday, Martin Seligman pioneered the research in learned helplessness and the experimental paradigm was established with dogs.
My Rhodesian Ridgeback, Ruki, is a member of the Exquisite Mind Sangha. He attends all the meditation sessions, usually sprawled out snoring on the rug as we sit around meditating. He’s a dharma dog and a great teacher.
It’s clear that dogs are capable of experiencing a range of emotions, pleasant to unpleasant. Ruki has demonstrated during his long life joy, exuberance, anxiety, fear, anger, indifference, and desire — relentless desire for more and more Milk Bones.
His brain is heavily limbic, that is, the emotional brain. He can suffer. And as a being who can desire he can be frustrated, expectant, and disappointed. As a non-human animal he, like all dogs and non-human animals, is subject to our
projections of human qualities.
While he can suffer pain and frustration, I don’t think he can suffer anguish because he has no ongoing story of “me.” While he knows his name is Ruki I don’t think “Ruki” exists as an enduring entity the way “Arnie” does for me and “fill in the blank” does for you. In other words, there is no fixed concept of self, no constructed identity, nothing to experience anguish.
When he doesn’t get what he wants what does he do? Does he moan and complain? Does he feel bad about himself; feel like he is a bad dog, unworthy? Of course, we really don’t know what he is experiencing, but I find it highly unlikely that he feels bad about himself in this way. These feelings are reserved for human animals.


Usually, when he doesn’t get what he wants he just goes to sleep. He is a champion sleeper and great teacher in this way. On the infrequent occasion when he has spent a long day alone, I expect him to be pacing the floors when I come. Instead, I am always rousing him out of a deep sleep.
Granted Ruki does not have a clinical case of separation anxiety, as the dogs in the aforementioned study did. Dogs with separation anxiety clearly suffer and again in a way that is different from our brand of suffering.
It’s my observation that Ruki is wonderful embodiment of what the Buddha called anatta or “no-self.” He is a sensate, sentient being, but I don’t think he is capable of projecting an ongoing story-line starring himself into the future. Nor do I think he can dredge one up from memory. He can associate and learn, but I don’t think he can fret in reference to a sense of “me.” Because of this his suffering is shorter-lived, more local than it can be for us.
Our capacity for imagination can prolong, elaborate, and compound suffering into anguish. We not only feel the sting of loss and disappointment, we feel bad about ourselves; we feel a sense of lack.
Ruki, like all dogs cannot persist that sense of lack and I think he sleeps better at night (and during the day!) because of it.
Dogs are wonderful dharma teachers, so I bow to you my teacher!
  • Donna

    Dogs live in the moment, which is what I wish I could do better. They don’t obsess about the next event or idea. They are just are who they are. I enjoy being with my dog as a great teacher of mindfullness!

  • Ellie

    “The disposition of noble dogs is to be gentle with people they know and the opposite with those they don’t know…. How, then, can the dog be anything other than a lover of learning since it defines what’s its own and what’s alien.” – Plato

  • Carol Green

    Check out newly released book, Spiritual Transformation in America. It deals with the major shifts that are taking place in religious and spiritual observance, affiliation and practices in the United States. Go to author’s website, Also, learn which animals are believed to be self-aware, along with the latest research on consciouness.

  • U

    A bow to you all.
    And bow-wow 2.

  • Pointelss Pete

    This is just about the dumbest thing I have ever heard.

  • Pointless Pete

    I can’t believe that I have to write about this for class?!?!

  • Pointless Pete

    ahahahahhahaahahah. There are no such thing as dharma dogs.

  • Pointless Pete

    yea its me again. Still trying to write about this so called dharma dog. anybody want to write this paragraph for me???????

  • Pointless Pete

    Hola everyone! It’s me pointless pete. and im still not seeing how this concerns Buddhism and why I have to write a 250 word essay on something like this.

  • jack

    She thinks dogs are Humans basically. Dogs were made to obey humans not posses human qualities and such. its acting out as instinct not because it found a nice place to “meditate”, where it happens to be in the meditation room, where the humans are! it just wants something and since you ignored it he fell asleep. this is garbage and completely agree with pete on this one.

  • Dr. Arnie Kozak

    Thanks everyone for your spirited comments. My entry was really about us — our relationship to self, and how we construct that sense of self. Focusing on Ruki was a metaphor for trying to understand the Buddha’s concepts of anatta and dukkha (two of the three marks of existence). You are right, my dog is sleeping not meditating. He comes to the Studio to be part of the action. When attention is not focused on him, he goes to sleep. While he might prefer the attention (I don’t know), I do know that he goes to sleep without a fuss. He doesn’t appear to generate an anguished story about how “no one likes him …” Pointless Pete seems to doing what it is that my dog cannot do — generating one of these anguished stories. This capacity for imagination and its feature of complaining seems to be a unique human capacity. In the moment, you have the task of writing for class. What would happen if you gave that your full attention instead of the storyline that says, “This is just about the dumbest thing I ever heard” ? I bet you would be happier and more productive.

  • Deborah

    I guess I’m not surprised you had to explain and clarify, Arnie. Folks so often get stuck on the outer meaning of a teaching and miss the inner and secret meanings. I find my dogs to be wonderful teachers. They are the embodiment of metta. I’ve learned unconditional love, patience, and kindness from three of my dogs.
    They certainly do live in the moment…but to the point of monkey mind. Ah. Another teaching.
    Since bodhisattvas can be reborn in whatever form they wish, I sometimes think that they often choose to be dogs. They do not stand on podiums, nor do they necessarily know they are teaching you. They may not be conscious of being bodhisattvas, but the lessons are there to be learned, if you are open enough to see them.
    The slight distraction of a wonderful Great Dane who plopped his head on a couple of laps in a meditation group I was in prompted one of the members to say, “There’s always a dog,” which evoked a lot of laughter.
    The truth is that teachings are all around us, all the time. As always, it depends on your own perception.

  • Pointless Pete

    Jack you are my hero. I only wish that people could see the world from simple minds. For example, as the late great Colonel Sanders once said, “I’m too drunk to taste that chicken!”

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