Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Dog's Will

This morning as I went to fetch the paper from the front porch of my town-home in suburban Maryland, a neighbor took her dog across the parking area to a central green-space for a morning bathroom break. I’ve seen this mid-sized, thickly furred canine on his morning ablutions before. Usually it’s the man of the house who is on the other end of the retractable leash, but in either case, there’s a sense of rush-hour haste to the operation. These folks clearly have jobs to get to and the AM dog shift is all business—I only hope the evening walk is less perfunctory. This morning the dog took a wee then, in typical dog fashion, began sniffing about in the grass. The woman paused a few seconds then gave a half-hearted tug on the leash. Fluffy was pulled slightly off balance, but resumed her snuffling about. As she trotted over to investigate another smell served up on the morning’s grassy tableau, another tug altered her direction. But she once again resumed her Hoovering, probably hoping to savor one or two more bouquets before the inevitable return to the relatively bland landscape of indoor carpets and floorboards. Finally, the woman—perhaps growing impatient that the dog’s trivial pursuits were obstructing her own list of important tasks—produced a decisive jerk and the two re-crossed the pavement.

The dog probably knows the routine. She knows the AM shift is short, and that she won’t have long to sniff the world. But she also knows, from experience, that her busy humans, like the leash she’s on, will yield a little. By staying on-task she can buy some time. This, surely, is a dog exercising her will

Isn’t it interesting that the exercise of free will could ever have been viewed as a uniquely human trait? My New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd Edition) defines “will” as the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action. Apart from the reference to a “person,” there’s nothing about the capacity that doesn’t also apply to any conscious creature who can plan and act. It is now widely documented—if not yet enshrined in popular thinking—that other animals are conscious planners. Furthermore, some philosophers, including the influential Peter Singer, argue that the designation “person” also applies to some animals. I agree, and if it would improve a dog’s lot, or a chicken’s, then I will it to happen. So, I suspect, would Fido.


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