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The Creative Lives of Dogs

The importance of fostering creativity in our canine companions.

Key points

  • Creativity is broadly dispersed in the animal world.
  • Creativity arises out of curiosity, flexibility, empathy, intelligence, and self-awareness.
  • Dogs have many ways of being creative, through play, communication, social diplomacy, innovation, and problem-solving.
  • Canine creativity and well-being are linked.

Several months ago, an acquaintance told me a fascinating story about his dog Luka. Every night, Luka gathers his large assortment of toys and arranges them in a particular configuration–one that changes from one night to the next. After making his “painting with toys,” Luka settles down in the middle of the pile and goes to sleep.

This story has been running through my head as I’ve been reading Carol Gigliotti’s fascinating new book, The Creative Lives of Animals. Was Luka’s nighttime ritual an act of creativity?

Although Gigliotti doesn’t write specifically about dogs, her work has invited me to wonder more actively about the creative lives of dogs–especially pet dogs, whose creativity should be on full display for us as their housemates and life partners. It has led me to wonder about the links between creativity and well-being. And it has, perhaps most pointedly, enriched how I observe my dog, Bella.

Animal Creativity

“Animals create.” This is the opening salvo in Gigliotti’s book. Her goal is not, she says, to compare human creativity to the creativity of nonhuman animals but to see both as "part of a ‘deep source’ of encompassing creativity’" (p. 3). She defines creativity as "a dynamic process in which novel and meaningful behaviors are generated" (p. 4). Novel behaviors are creative if they are meaningful and purposeful to the individual.

Gigliotti offers various lines of evidence for animal creativity. She explores the intellectual and emotional underpinnings of the creative process and suggests that these are present in a broad range of nonhuman animal species. Among other things, creativity arises out of curiosity, flexibility, empathy, intelligence, and self-awareness.

Her book gives example after example of animals using creativity to meet the demands of their physical and social environments. Animals apply creativity to communication (the creation by prairie dogs of descriptive terms for unique objects or threats), play (the imaginative play of crocodiles), construction (the innovative engineering of beaver dams), sexual exuberance (the diverse mating dances of the Western Grebe), to emotional agency (the use of social diplomacy among chimpanzees).

The Creativity of Dogs

Since reading Gigliotti’s book, I’ve become more curious about the creative lives of dogs. How might dogs express their creativity? What creative behaviors can we observe if we open ourselves to the possibilities? Is it going too far to say that dogs have the capacity for creativity?

David Taffet/Unsplash
Creativity at Play
Source: David Taffet/Unsplash

I asked Gigliotti why she didn’t write much about dogs, and she said she made that choice because she felt that there was already a sizable literature on the inner lives of dogs, and she wanted to open people’s eyes to the creative lives of animals with whom they aren’t as familiar. “But,” she told me, “I do think that dogs and cats are creative.”

We do, indeed, have a wonderful and rich literature on the inner lives of dogs. Yet perhaps more explicit discussion of dog creativity is in order. I looked through my library of books on canine cognition and emotion and found no index entries for “creativity.” That surprised me.

I then googled “dog creativity” and “dogs and creativity” to see what would come up. Most of the search results were about how dogs boost human creativity (by making us happy and whole). But I found one that spoke directly to dogs as creative beings.

In a short YouTube clip, scientist Brian Hare responds to some questions about dog creativity posted on his Dognition Facebook Page. In speaking to “can dogs be creative?” he uses the example of his dog digging in the sand at the beach: “Is Chichi here digging for her ball,” he asks, “or is she painting a Mona Lisa?” “I think dogs can be creative,” he goes on. “Maybe not in the way we normally think about creativity, but they can certainly solve problems that they haven’t seen before.”

I’d like to ask Hare a follow-up question. Why the caveat, “not in the way we normally think about creativity?” Does Hare mean that dogs don’t have real creativity, which is unique to humans? Or does he simply mean that we typically think of creativity in a rather narrow-minded, human-centered fashion, and we need a more expansive mindset?

Gigliotti’s book points toward a unified picture of creativity, in which all animal creativity–human and nonhuman alike–arises from essentially the same evolutionary “deep source.” How creativity is expressed will certainly vary from one species to another and from one individual to another. But it is all creativity.

How Do Dogs Express Creativity?

Some creative behaviors mentioned by Gigliotti include building things, communicating feelings, improvising new sounds, inventing new games or other forms of play, and creatively resolving socially. I can think of examples of dogs doing all these things and more. The dog I mentioned at the beginning creates toy configurations. Are these pleasing to him visually? Do they create a “smell painting”? A configuration of emotional sensations?

Gigliotti sent me an example of her Great Pyrenees mix Chiara resolving a social conflict at the dog park, using creative body movements to subdue and provide a teachable moment to an overly rambunctious puppy.

Jessica Pierce
Poppy getting ready to Toss the Pinecone
Source: Jessica Pierce

My friend’s dog Poppy is especially creative when it comes to playing. In the snow, Poppy creates sledding games, makes snow angels, and dives into snowbanks. She also plays “toss the pinecone.” Every time I see Poppy, she has created several new games.

One of my own dog Bella’s unique creations is a special song she performs when she hears the cue “Is it time for bed?” It is not quite barking, not quite growling or whining, but more akin to yodeling. She has developed and perfected this song over many years.

Dog Creativity and Dog Happiness: Are they linked?

Gigliotti suggests in her book that creativity is suppressed in atmospheres of extreme constraints, such as a captive environment in which animals have few opportunities to make choices and express agency or in which the creative process is hindered by fear or stress. It is possible that the creativity of dogs, too, is sometimes suppressed by the constraints we place on their lives. A dog locked in a crate for the day has little opportunity to engage in creativity; a dog who never has the chance to engage in exuberant play is missing out on this creative outlet.

 Jessica Pierce
Is Bella creating a smell collage on her back?
Source: Jessica Pierce

This suggests that there are strong links between creativity and good welfare. When we provide dogs with an environment that is physically and emotionally secure and fulfilling, we provide the foundation from which creativity can flow. In particular, creativity in dogs is linked with enrichment. Indeed, enrichment might be conceived as providing dogs with opportunities to be creative.

Being creative is inherently fulfilling and can make dogs happy. This connection is made explicitly in an article on the What Dogs Want Academy website called “Learn Something New (Both You and Your Dog)," which opens with this line: “Are you aware that fostering creative thinking in your dog is a vital component in helping them become a well-adjusted canine?” The article also makes the hugely important link between creativity and agency: dogs need to have opportunities to make their own choices, generate their own ideas about how to navigate their environment, and solve their own problems.

Enrichment is not only directed at increasing pet dogs’ opportunities to engage in the creative process, but it is also often–quite appropriately–linked with our own creativity: Can you think of 10 creative ways to enrich your dog’s life?

(Here is a fun example of human ingenuity on behalf of dog welfare: boredpanda’s 47 creative dog owners who did pawsome things for their dogs).

Coming up with enrichments that nurture well-being and, even better, foster creativity in our dogs may also feed our creative spirit more broadly. Creativity is a mutually reinforcing process.

References

Gigliotti. C. (2022).The Creative Lives of Animals. nyupress.org/9781479815463/the-creative-lives-of-animals/

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