For the past six weeks, I've been running around the country in support of my new book: "A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life". The book starts out as a look at the "cult and culture" of dog rescue and becomes a much deeper investigation of the relationship between humans and animals. It is also an examination of the upper limit of what's possible for dogs, though, as I've come to conclude, we really have no idea what's the upper limit of possible when it comes to dogs.
Because of all these things, I have lately been told a lot of really incredible dog stories. We'll return to these stories in a moment, first I need to explain one of the other phenomena I investigate in the book: the question of cross-species communication.
In part, looking at human/animal communication possibilities means looking into what we now know of mirror neurons and empathy and such. In part this means taking a deeper peak at shamanic traditions and the possibility that humans and animals share a common—albeit mystical—language. While the latter may sound like nonsense, it's also a serious anthropological puzzle.
Almost all archaic cultures speak of an age when humans and animals spoke the same language. Some still do. The dreamtime of the Aborigines being the most well-known example, but the Zuni still begin all their ancestral tales with the phrase, "A long time ago, when the animals could speak." In his seminal "Shamanism," University of Chicago history of religion Mircea Eliade addresses it this way:
"Finally, we must take into account the mystical solidarity between man and animal, which is a dominant characteristic of the religion of the paleo-hunters. By virtue of this, certain human beings are able to change into animals, or understand their language, or to share in their prescience and occult powers. Each time a shaman succeeds in sharing the animal mode of being, he in a manner re-established the situation that existed in illio tempore, in mystical times, when the divorce between man and the animal world had not yet occurred."
So pervasive is this belief that even our own religions are not immune. The very first scene in the Bible features a talking snake, the most familiar example.
But here's the puzzle: Archaic peoples lived long before the age of mass communication so either the entire world was sharing the same mass hallucination or something else was going on.
In my book, I examine what this something else could be from serious scientific directions. But out here, on book tour, people are less inclined to make such distinctions. So for the past six weeks, I have heard a lot of "my dog spoke to me" stories. Most defy scientific interpretation.
The other day a journalist told me about the time her dog came and got her out of the bathtub—literally walked into the bathroom and said: "you need to get out of the tub for a moment, I think there's something out here you need to see."
I have never had an experience similar so have never known what to make of these types of stories. In the book, I try to explain talking animals in the context of ritual and what Maslow called "peak experience" or what Csikszentmihalyi labeled "flow states," but not when someone is just chilling out in the bathtub.
So normally, in this situation, hearing this kind of psychic talking dog story, I just keep my mouth shut and nod. But now, perplexingly, I have to tell you a dog story of my own.
Two days ago, I was reading in bed, when Damien ran up to me. Damien is an ancient and arthritic Chihuahua whose running days are long behind him. Just the fact that he had all this energy caught my attention. He then spent the better portion of ten minutes trying to lick my nose and dance on my face and with more fervor than I've seen in a long time. This was even more peculiar because the weather turned this last week and the temperatures dropped down near freezing and Damien hates the cold. He can barely move when temperatures are in the 60s. We were already down to the 40s, yet he was still bouncing about like a wind-up toy.
All of this was curious. I started wondering what all the fuss was about, but no sooner did that question form in my mind then I very clearly received an answer. I heard a voice in my head that didn't sound like my own. It sounded like Damien—though how I knew it sounded like Damien is another question.
"I'm saying goodbye," is what Damien seemed to say.
My heart skipped a few beats. Of course, I had to ask: "You mean you're going to die?"
"No," said Damien, "but I have to go get lost."
And that was the end of the conversation. Damien turned around and walked away and I was seconds away from telling my wife what had happened, but it was too ridiculous.
And it wasn't just the psychic talking dog part that was ridiculous, but let me explain:
My wife and I co-run Rancho de Chihuahua dog sanctuary. This means, among other things, we hike about 20 dogs, off-leash, through the badlands of New Mexico, near every day. But it has been too cold outside for Damien to hike this past month. Most days he won't even get out of bed. And if Damien isn't going on walks then there's no way he could actually get lost, so the whole scenario was, well, ridiculous.
Sometimes, my wife, Joy, and I split the dog walking responsibilities. I'll take out the big dogs and she'll take the small dogs. Yesterday was one of those days. I took the big dogs out around 8:00 and Joy took the small guys out around 10:00. Around 11:00, she returned in a panic: Damien was missing.
All of this took place when I was in my office working, but, apparently, even though he hadn't wanted to go on a hike in over a month, yesterday morning Damien was insistent. Joy told me that he ran out of the house and demanded to come along. She thought it was too cold and put him back inside, but he turned around and dashed out again. Finally, she relented.
Even stranger, when Damien goes on hikes, he rarely strays from the center of the pack. He's just too old and too arthritic and with all the potential dangers running around the badlands (coyotes, bobcats, owls, etc.) he prefers to hang close. But yesterday he'd run off and not returned and that was really unusual.
Our next hour was unpleasant. We jumped in our truck and drove to the hiking trail, but Damien wasn't there. We parked and jumped out and ran around shouting. Joy hiked one way, I hiked another, but neither of us saw any sign of him.
After about 45 minutes, we jumped back in the truck to head home—on the off chance that Damien had already made his way there—when we rounded a bend and found him sitting near the entrance to the trail. Perfectly healthy, big smile on his face, wagging his tail.
So what does any of this mean? Who knows. Seriously, barring madness, and despite having this first hand experience of whatever it was that I just had an experience of, I am no closer to being able to offer anything that looks like a scientific explanation.
But more and more I am coming to realize that there are a whole lot of folks who have had similar experiences, so perhaps this isn't just about some old stories anymore. One other thing I would like to point out is that as silly as this might sound, last month's issue of the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology" had "Feeling Future," a study done by Cornell University's Daryl Bem that showed—at least as far as Bem can tell—evidence of both precognition and premonition.
I would also like to add that this is a fairly prestigious journal published by the APA.
As I said, it's a puzzle.