It's only been fairly recently that we humans have been inclined to allow animals to have minds or even thoughts. Rene Descartes influenced the beliefs of people for several hundred years, when he maintained that animals cannot think and have no emotions. That insidious idea encouraged hundreds of years of mistreatment and even torture of animals, due to the rationalization that they cannot feel pain or even have the ability to ponder what was happening to them. Like a machine, it was believed that an animal was simply without awareness and automatically reacted to events. You can disassemble a machine without causing it pain, so why not a dumb animal?
Fortunately we now have awakened to the fact that animals do have thoughts, have emotions, and are able to learn new things. That latter factor means they even have culture! This knowledge has led to much more humane treatment of animals—although we still have a long way to go, to improve our behavior towards them.
In fact, recent fascinating research at two universities (the University of Cincinnati in Ohio and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand) have demonstrated that even spiders have the ability to think. The researchers have clearly demonstrated that spiders have a memory, use sophisticated ways of communicating, and make complex decisions. Spiders deliberate!
The animal with whom I have the closest relationship is our dog Chompsky. (Yes, he is named after Noam Chomsky.) He's the most intelligent dog I've ever known. He understands and responds to a few dozen words. He knows the daily routine—often anticipating what's coming next, by either the time of day or by various emotional or body signals that we send. It's as if he is reading our minds, but I know it's more a matter of his acute attention to subtle cues that we display.
Chompsky has an excellent memory, which is definitely an indication of a mind. For example, when we walk through the woods he will adhere to fading trails that we've not followed for several weeks, so there can't be any trace of lingering scent that his exquisite nose could pick up. He simply remembers the way, as he leads me along. When he comes to a branch in the fading path, he pauses and looks back at me to see which direction I might choose today.
A dog does not have the ability for language, so Chompsky cannot cogitate in words, as we humans do; but there has to be some kind of mental process going on—wherein he thinks about things, remembers prior events in order to make today's choices, weighs alternative possibilities before making choices, and even anticipates future events. He deliberates!
One unique feature that dogs possess (and most animals don't) is the ability to communicate and interact extremely well with humans. That skill is what transformed wolves into human companions, tens of thousands of years ago. Those first proto-canines were smart enough to realize that pairing up with people had several advantages—such as bringing a plentiful food supply and a cozy lifestyle, as a companion to the planet's smartest critter.
One of Chompsky's more fetching qualities is his propensity to lock eyes with me and hold our gaze for several minutes. He even seems to be making a mind-meld, as if some kind of deep, wordless bond has been established between us. The other night I walked past his bed, as his eyes focused intently on me. I felt compelled to sit down, place my hands on him, and gaze deeply into his eyes.
I pondered what may be going on in his mind. Was he feeling the same emotion—call it love—that I was? I sat there, as if my mind was melding with his. I had sweet, mushy thoughts come to me, that I sent to him. I wondered if he was having the same warm musings I was. Just as I thought maybe we were on the threshold of a cross-species breakthrough that would dazzle the scientific and spiritual world, he abruptly got up and walked away! So much for a new discovery.