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!