This essay by D. L. Pughe originally appeared in BARK Magazine.
“An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them…” Marcel Proust
“Yet by that time, I kept one desire, one above all the others. I wanted a continuum. A continuum as a whisper, which never ends, similar to life, which is what perpetuates us greater than any quality.” Henri Michaux
“For time is the longest distance between two places.” Tennessee Williams
One of the endless wonderful things we love about dogs may be their ability to pull us so completely into the present. We forget about the load of past we usually drag around behind us, and the clouds of future we forecast up ahead. What human being can match a dog in how they so gratefully embrace what the day will offer up to immediate experience? As Pascal tells us, human beings must continually make efforts to acquire this newness of spirit, “since we can only preserve our former ‘grace’ (as he calls it) with the acquisition of new grace.” Perhaps one of the many reasons we befriend a dog is for an infusion of grace that no one else can offer to the same degree.
Dogs do, in fact, have their own sense of time. As with humans, scents and smells pull them backward into memory, and also like us, dogs have been known to save treats for a future moment of need. But it is still the greatest challenge is to catapult oneself into the canine mind and decipher how they regard seconds, minutes, the accumulation of hours into days. I spent a good while walking dogs at the county animal shelter in Iowa City, and one of the most congenial dogs there was an American Foxhound named Daisy who had spent most her life in confinement. She had been in one institution or another for more than two years since she was found as a 6 month old pup roaming the countryside of Johnson County, 50 miles away. Daisy looked to be a purebred Foxhound who had chased a deer or furry creature too far from a pack of like-minded hounds on a hunt with their owner. She’d been wandering in the wild long enough to develop a serious ear infection and to become pregnant. After being rescued, she was sent to the Kirkwood Veterinary College where interns successfully operated on her ears then delivered her puppies as a case study for the obstetric vets. Everyone at the Vet school took to Daisy: she was good-natured, easy-going, well-behaved, grateful for attention but never demanding. She stayed many months, long after her puppies were born and given away, and her gentle nature made her an easy ‘test animal’ for demonstrating veterinary techniques like drawing blood.
Nearly a year later, Daisy transferred to the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center, a highly regarded county shelter where all the animals are well treated and almost all find good homes. She arrived in the spring, when an excess of cute puppies were adopted first and her stay continued on for a long year. She willingly settled into her new 4′ x 6′ kennel and looked forward to playtimes out in the fenced yard with other dogs and to daily walks on leash by the Iowa River with the Center volunteers. At the beginning of each walk she would shake her head happily, her sensitive ears flapping wildly. And afterwards she gratefully stepped back into her cage, sat on her bed, and politely received her treat.
Many dogs in shelters, especially if they’ve come from a happy family home, grow sad in confinement. Over a period of weeks you witness their soul begin to wither, they lie facing the back wall of their kennel, barely lifting their heads to see who is walking by. Their sadness is palpable and heart wrenching. Daisy showed only the smallest glimpses of this desperation, and seemed to amiably accept whatever came her way in terms of kindness. She was a pleasure to walk and I began taking her on more distant adventures along the river. On a lark I emailed her picture to a friend back in Berkeley, “I’ve found the perfect dog for you,” I told her “Not only is she beautiful and the best behaved dog I’ve met, but she just matches your china!” My friend Margaretta’s vintage porcelain features a pack of Foxhounds spiraling into the center of each plate followed by a fleet of red-coated horsemen. I was completely surprised but delighted when she answered back that she was interested, undaunted by the 2,000 miles between where Daisy and I were and where she was writing from. She had lost her older dog a few years back and had been looking for a new one for awhile. When she heard Daisy’s story, Margaretta quickly applied for adoption by Fax, and once accepted, we set about finding a kind soul who could drive Miss Daisy from Iowa to her new Berkeley home.
This was the moment when Daisy came to live with us for a month. We were visiting academics who normally live in Berkeley but were staying a year in a house just 4 blocks from the Animal Center. By the time she came to us, Daisy had been well over two years in kennel life and was such a gracious and good-natured dog, stately and quiet. I thought of her often like Nelson Mandela, someone who had spent so much of life in confinement yet kept her nobility and generosity of spirit. Daisy had a sense of depth and seemingly infinite patience. Being aware of her past, I happily watched her grow less serious and more playful day by day. After a week she clearly thought she was here to stay and began romping a bit like a clumsy puppy with an overgrown adult body. She would crouch in play posture and rabbit pounce in happy circles. Being so aware of her past confinement, I wanted her to enjoy her newfound freedom and took her on long walks as often as I could. She was truly being reborn into a new wide world. But I also knew she was only staying ‘awhile,’ a notion I was at a loss to explain to her. I realized the disappointment ahead in thinking of our house as home only to be uprooted once more and taken by a long car ride to her final destination.
The time of a story involves a beginning, middle and end—this erzälte Zeit is how we, as humans, enjoy contemplating time.[i] In order to gather up instantaneous moments we must be able to remember what just occurred and suspend it in immediate memory to link it with what is about to happen. Husserl likens this to the way we hear a succession of notes running off and sinking down as we connect them all into a melody. Something in what we hear tells us to wait, this is going somewhere, a future place of greater possibilities. It is how we experience time as a 4th dimension of space, going away from something toward something else, ending up over a fresh horizon. The key to absorbing the melody is an ability to wait and I realized this was Daisy’s secret strength. In the shelter she was patient; in the dog training classes that all dogs at the shelter take to make them more ‘adoptable,’ she’d gotten the ‘wait’ command with ease. Wait means ‘pause for a moment’ because there’s something up ahead worth waiting for. It is the essence of all hope.[ii]
Consciousness of time is a difficult human proposition, and wholly subjective as Henri Bergson pointed out a century ago. Each person defines their own sense of duration (durée), how the minutes add up in our psyche and at what point our awareness of them can seem unendurable. Abrupt change seems to be what we all fear the most, where we have no role in affecting that change. And yet having time to think about change is truly the basis of neurosis. Most people acknowledge that it is not death they worry about but the amount of time they might have to helplessly see it hurtling towards them. It is why wasting painful illnesses seem unendurable but also why airline disasters where we imagine having long moments, apprehending our fate in mid-air, seem excruciating. The more time we have to think and comprehend, the more we also have time to feel the meaning of it, the eclipse of our future. Heidegger spent great amounts of time exploring how we experience being in it, and how each of us, aware or not, is ‘being towards an end.’ And thus we are always becoming, the ‘instants whizzing’ by in the ‘now’s continuous pursuit of the not-yet-now.’
Dogs do not view the future the same way, insofar as we can tell. They live in the moment, propelled by an urgency of smells and sounds that we are often oblivious to. They have their own circadian rhythms that sometimes coincide with ours in terms of day and night, but possibly not in awareness of the continuum.[iii] Our older dog, Pearl, for instance, had a change of diet in her senior years that derailed her usually ‘to the minute’ calculations on when she was usually fed each day. Every 20 minutes from midnight on she would wake up and whine to ask if it was time for breakfast, like the annoying kid on a long car trip to a not-yet-known destination repeatedly asking “are we there yet?”
Understanding dogs takes a rare kind of empathy, one that doesn’t anthropomorphize but tries to really see the world through their eyes. I’d spent years studying both philosophies of time and also the unique phenomenological aspects of empathy. Wading through the German thinkers on the latter subject, I’d learned to distinguish between what we know as sympathy, where you absorb the emotional state of the other person in a sloshy mess, from a more useful empathy which combines thought and imagination, intuition and emotion. Empathy is thought to offer not only a deeper understanding of what the world is like for another being, but also some way to bridge our two worlds.[iv] A revised notion of empathy, a ‘theromorphic’ approach, suggests that one can begin to see the world through the eyes of the animal by first understanding the perspective of their vision, then the expanded range of their other senses of smell, taste, etc.[v]
But to attempt to enter dog perspective one must first decide what is their ‘natural culture.’ In today’s urban requirements to leash and clean up after our pets, few dogs have a life of freedom to come and go as they please from our homes. Their sense of time revolves around our own schedules: when we wake and rise to feed them, take them for walks and out to play and, sadly and ultimately, when we must decide their time is up. Their own sense of time is one poised in our duration, which they seem to endure with sometimes amazing patience. Often, because of their need for our assistance to be out in the world, I think I can safely say that most dogs are exceedingly well rested, napping diligently out of the boredom of waiting.
In Daisy’s case, I was too sympathetically aware of her past, her years of confinement; it was always with me in the present, along with my knowledge of her upcoming future. I’d imagine the endless procession of nights she’d spent at the shelter, where lights are put out at 5:30 p.m. and the dogs lie in the dark until an attendant returns at 7:00 the next morning— similar to an experience watching Birdman of Alcatraz as a child where I became painfully aware of the reality of being ‘sentenced’ to ‘doing time.’ Then I shift to imagine the disruption of the upcoming long car trip to her new home.
Meanwhile Daisy was happily settling into our home in the present, though still a bit tentative about what to expect. She began to test boundaries just to see how things worked, gently sticking her nose into our trash can, grabbing a glove from the table and dropping it at my feet. She responded amiably to rules against such activities, and seemed to be checking on who was in charge. I wanted her to enjoy the world as much as possible now in compensation for her years of confinement and we embarked on long walking excursions around town. People often stopped us on the street to talk to her—she’d become a minor celebrity from an appearance we made on TV and from the many vet students and volunteers who had worked with her in the institutions she’d stayed in.
Memory is most tied to scent and hounds like Daisy are primarily attuned to smell; it was hard for me not to think that her past was trailing around with us in where her nose led us. More likely, it was her interest in small furry creatures that pulled us along, and the bits of food that only dogs seem to be able to spot on an empty street. But she appeared to recognize places, rushing up the steps of certain houses, plopping down once on a sofa on the porch of a student apartment as though she’d been the resident who’d caused it sag like a hammock. How long had she roamed the wilderness and fringes of the town before she’d been discovered? She wanted to get into any car, and once in the middle of an intersection yelped with recognition at a certain pickup, straining on her leash as though she’d found her long lost owner. I was certain they must have been heartbroken when this wonderful dog had disappeared, but felt like that past was gone and a better world for her lay up ahead in California.
As Daisy’s present was becoming more and more stable, she was less anxious when I left her alone and had grown familiar with our own routine: when she could expect her walks which, even in 20 below zero weather and deep snow, were her supreme delight. Routine, it seemed, calmed Daisy more than anything and I saw how this had become the key to her survival in captivity. But where we use our eyes to note minute changes in the neighborhood (a neighbor’s walk has been shoveled, their lawn mowed), each time a dog goes out into the world it has been replenished with countless invisible smells. And where most dogs’ philosophy of time is that of Winnie the Pooh, who sets his clock to 11 a.m. when it is always ‘Time for A Little Something,’ Daisy thought ahead. The treats we gave her she hid away, sometimes taking as long as an hour to bury one at the bottom of the clothes hamper for use some later day. Her future, the long journey ahead with someone she didn’t know, was looming for me, with no way to explain it to her though I confess I often did discuss her California home in glowing terms. When the day came for her departure, I realized how happy she had become here, how trusting. We made a happy commotion when our friend Craig arrived and loaded her things into the trunk and she gleefully jumped in the car, but as it drove away I saw that she had enough time to look back and realize I was not coming. It was haunting to see the panicked look frozen on her face and not imagine it reflected in the car window as she rode through long nights of hushed winter prairies. I felt as though I was caught in a relativity fable, riding a light beam parallel to the car but helpless to reassure her.
As human beings, when we meet people we like in the course of our travels, we enjoy warm meals together and laughing over shared stories. It is always hard to leave, but we know we have letters, email, the telephone, and a future where our paths might cross again. There was no way for me to explain the future to Daisy: that in a few months time I would be living across the street from her, able to share walks from time to time with her and her new ‘mom’. If a dog can feel betrayed, I suspected that kind of hurt was perplexing her now and for nearly 50 hours of travel by car. I knew once she arrived in California in Margaretta’s warm embrace she would be in heaven, and it was true. I was right, but she was wary to accept it at first. How can you tell a dog that this time it is ‘for keeps,’ that she would now be able to enjoy the succession of days with a true friend for the rest of her life?
Months later as I was leaving Iowa to return to Berkeley I found a treat Daisy had hidden in the folds of a pile of clean towels, her pledge to the future. I carried it back to her in her new home and Margaretta led me down to Daisy’s ‘queendom,’ her own backyard. She was napping in the sun and she greeted me happily, doing the silly circle dance; Daisy was clearly now happy all the time. She ran over to her own spacious dog house and pranced in to show it off, then we noted all her new ‘projects,’ a series of gleeful excavations that are being indulgently allowed, given her long history on concrete floors. Indoors, Daisy has two beds and enjoys retiring with Margaretta to a large fluffy one at the end of long adventurous days. She loves their routine, their daily walks and routes. the curious new symphony of smells, and glimpses of the deer that live on the other side of her fenced forest.
We live always with the tick, then tock—the asynchronous movement of two different clocks: one registers what we feel and the other how we’re conscious of having felt. Dogs keep us ticking, always able to seize the joy of every day and also every night and to urgently share it with us each moment. Luckily, they are safe from the tock that we, as humans, use to reckon with fate in order to protect them and their world, aching always for as much earthly time with them as we can.[vi]
“Anyone can observe that the duration for which we are exposed to impressions has no bearing on their fate in memory. Nothing prevents our keeping rooms in which we have spent twenty-four hours more or less clearly in our memory, and forgetting others in which we passed months. It is not, there- fore, due to insufficient exposure time if no image appears on the plate of remembrance. More frequent, perhaps, are the cases when the half-light of habit denies the plate the necessary light for years, until one day from an alien source it flashes as if from burning magnesium powder, and now a snapshot transfixes the room’s image on the plate.”
This essay was first published in BARK Magazine in Issue 32, 2005 and was one of six favorite essays chosen by the editors of BARK in its first decade of publishing.
[i] In cinematic time, this narrative path is always shifted, and it does make one wonder if dogs can experience things cinematically as Godard suggested: films have a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order.
[ii] An example purported to be from cognitive psychology that is hard to contemplate (unless you’ve admitted the difficulties in also realizing what the words to ‘three blind mice’ actually prescribe) tells us that rats put in a bucket of water will drown after three hours of struggle. If the rats are rescued after 2-1/2 hours, before their energies were exhausted, then put in water again a day later, they can struggle along for 5 hours. Hope. Even when it may be for Godot instead of God. (This example, by the way, is most often quoted in Christian sermons and biblical text analysis and used by business gurus in management seminars and is alternately attributed to Duke University or University of California at Berkeley). There is interesting testimony to how the ‘desensitization’ (we might call it insensitivity) required of researchers who use animals in experiments such as this one is an subject in its own right. See Roger E. Ulrich, “Animal Research in Psychology: An Example of Reinforced Behavior” in the Journal of Americans For Medical Advancement: Perspectives on Meidcal Research, Vol. 3 (1991).
[iii] Recently, in an earnest but entirely artificial laboratory setting, scientists conducted controlled experiments to ascertain the circadian rhythms of dogs. In an experiment on purebred beagles in Italy, the dogs were kept in 140 X 200 cm. pens in relative isolation (away from other dogs and human contact) for 8 with days with rectal thermometers which measured their temperature every two hours. Night and day were simulated by laboratory lights on and off and the dogs were fed once a day, four hours after the lights were turned on each day. Even in this highly artificial setting, the dogs exhibited heightened temperatures at certain same times each day, indicating circadian rhythms usually found in most beings in nature. What this tells us about how dogs experience time, or how they found the confinement and intrusion of instruments during this experiment is still inaccessible even to our imaginations. R. Refinetti &G. Piccione, “Daily Rhythmicity of Body Temperature in the Dog.” Journal of Veterinary Medical Science 65 (8) (2003): 935-937.
[iv] Wemelsfelder, Françcoise, “The scientific validity of subjective concepts in models of animal welfare.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 53 (1997) 75-88.
[v] Timberlake, William, “An animal-centered, causal-system approach to the understanding and control of behavior.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 53 (1997) 107-129. Timberlake proposes a revised notion of empathy, a ‘theromorphic’ approach, where the researcher attempts to see the world through the eyes of the animal by first understanding the perspective of their vision, then the expanded range of their other senses of smell, taste, etc.
In what to me seems the most ‘natural’ approach using Timberlake’s theory, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in her book The Hidden Life of Dogs attempted to infiltrate dog culture as an anthropologist. She began by observing her two dogs in an urban environment, later on a ranch in the West she studied larger group of dogs which she gave a spacious territory under their own control. The dogs Thomas observed on her ranch were able to establish a culture among themselves rather than in relationship to her. Though she continued to provide food, she did not interact with them as pets and attempted to infiltrate the ‘pack’ in the beleaguered position far down in the social hierarchy. Thomas quickly found that being first in the order of eating, the choicest morsels, and the best spot in the collectively dug out den were all awarded to the alpha dog and then in order the dogs themselves had established. Because she was still the main provider of food, daily rhythms still focused on her times of feedings, but she watched how the shifting sun and weather affected daily routines the dogs established among themselves.[vi] Though the dogs under her care had a larger area in which to range, napping in the sun did figure significantly as a pastime. Thomas, Helen Marshall. The Hidden Life of Dogs (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1993).