Being human means constantly engaging in time travel. Your mind wanders back to a memory of something you did in kindergarten, and then perhaps it jumps ahead to ruminating on where you want to go for vacation this summer. You're never fully in the present, because your brain is crammed full of things that have already happened, and you're also preoccupied with things you still have to do.
Sometimes I've looked at my dog and thought, what is it like to live strictly in the moment, the way she does? As far as anyone can tell, she's not reminiscing about playing with her littermates when she was a puppy 13 years ago. Nor is she thinking, "In a few more months, I have to go get my annual vaccinations. I really hate that,” However, in a recent column posted on psychologytoday.com, renowned dog researcher Marc Bekoff takes issue with the notion that dogs cannot mentally travel through time.
It's true that they probably don't engage in idle speculation or analysis the way we do, but their responses to stimuli clearly show that they remember past events and anticipate future ones.
For example, let's say you have a small dog who was once attacked by a Rottweiler, and now he trembles with fear whenever he sees a large, powerful dog. Why would he do this if he had no memory of the attack?
In fact, dogs remember past trauma so vividly that it's difficult to rid them of a phobia once it's begun. But they also remember pleasant events. If you gave your dog a big spoonful of peanut butter the last time you opened the jar, he's likely to come- rurming the next time he hears that jar lid being twisted off. He's remembering the past and simultaneously looking into the future - a near-future in which he believes he will once again receive peanut butter.
If dogs were unable to recall the past, it would be a lot easier to rehabilitate those who've been abused, because their mind would have already been wiped clean of their trauma.
But this total amnesia would also make any form of training impossible. What good is it to go to an obedience class if the dog has no memory of anything he learned?
And maybe now you're conceding that, okay, dogs are able to retain some experiences for short periods of time - but surely they can't remember things that happened years ago.
However, there's anecdotal evidence that they can. There have been cases where a dog wandered away from home, got lost, and ended up being taken in by someone else, only to be identified much later by a microchip scan. When reunited with his original owner, the dog clearly recognizes who the person is.
Proving that dogs can anticipate and plan for the future is a little more difficult; but there are some obvious examples, such as the dog who runs and gets his leash when he sees his owner putting on walking shoes.
I think some researchers may be biased because dogs don't engage in abstract thinking. When we look into the future, we're thinking in terms of what's going to happen with the economy, politics, health care, environmental change, and so on - not to mention our personal relationships.
A dog, on the other hand, is focused mainly on basic needs and simple pleasures. But just because those are the things he's interested in doesn't mean he's not capable of living "outside the moment.”
Debbie Gilbert has been handling dogs for more than four decades. E-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.