Puppies and Imagination

Do dogs and other animals have imagination?

While scientists now agree that animals are conscious (duh!) and many or most agree they are sentient, it’s harder to say how much creative and meta-thinking animals might do. We can listen to a human child tell us a silly story he’s invented, but the language barrier makes it harder for a young animal to do the same. Take away a common language, and would we think an other-speaking child incapable of inventing the story, just because we can’t hear him tell it?

We know animals can think creatively for problem-solving; it’s one of the aspects we treasure about clicker training in particular, this encouragement of creative and analytic thinking in our learners. But I hadn’t thought much on if or how animals use imagination on their own. I’m a storyteller, but only for my own species. I mean, a game of keepaway can be just as fun if it’s a piece of wood or some faux treasure, because the game is in the chase, right? When we play tug, it’s a fun game whether we’re pulling on a rope or a freshly killed caribou. Imagination isn’t a clear component.

But then this morning I heard a concerning noise (people with young puppies can develop the same “mommy ears” as parents of small children) and checked on its source. Undómiel had a paw caught in the strap of a bag hanging in my bedroom, and she was fiercely trying to gnaw herself free. She was trapped!

And then she noticed me, and her whole expression changed, and she casually pulled her paw free and trotted toward me.

Admit it. At some point in time you've pretended the floor was made of lava and that jumping onto the couches was the only way to survive.The situation was exactly like a child stretching from the couch, trying to avoid the hot lava carpets, who suddenly sees a friend enter and immediately jumps down to run to him, the hot lava forgotten. It was a wholly pretended-for-entertainment threat. And so I have to wonder, was Undómiel imagining herself trapped as part of her play? Does she invent stories in her pretend wrestling and tugging and chasing so that they’re more than just patterns of muscle movements, but elaborate role-play as well?

I have no answer to this, but it’s an intriguing question.

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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