The Coffeelicious
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The Coffeelicious

Roaming beyond the “doggy default”

Yet another lesson from Sadie, Dog of Tomorrow

I love our dog Sadie. She’s a rescue dog we adopted about 10 years ago, and as far as we can tell, she’s got chihuahua and dachshund in her. She’s also got enough life and personality for two dogs. We call her The Barky Dog (among other things) for reasons we discovered soon after getting her.

In the past year, I’ve noticed a new behavior in Sadie. She would yip a couple of times, then stand — never sit — in front of the patio door. I noticed her standing behavior, and I eventually realized that she would stand at the door, unmoving, for as long as it took for me to realize that she was (I assume) waiting to be let in.

It was as if she had turned herself off — like a robot — until something happened.

Now consciousness is a tricky concept — we still don’t know how it works in human beings, let alone animals — but it’s reasonable to say that it exists along a scale that goes from zero to 100. At the zero end, you have living things that have no consciousness. These are things whose behaviors are built-in reactions to external stimuli, like a cell in your body, an amoeba, or a sea sponge.

Crawling up the zero-to-100 consciousness scale, we come to living things that seem to transition from responding-to-stimuli (cockroaches, flies) to powered-by-instincts (lizards) to seeming-to-have-moods-and-emotions (dogs — yay!), to a-lot-like us (apes), to us (human beings).

(To forestall outraged scientific rebuttals, I admit that this narrative is simplistic and anthropomorphic. As a counterexample, African gray parrots are said to have “near human-like levels of consciousness”.)

So what does this have to do with Sadie?

I like to think, in my own unscientific way, of what it might be like to be Sadie the dog— a living thing plausibly influenced by both instinct and (for lack of a better term) motive. Lacking the ability to think Hey, I’m getting tired of waiting and Do I really want to go inside? Lying in the sun would be pretty good, she might just relax into an instinct that turns her brain off until something interesting happens. In terms of her doggy experience, she’s just not there in these periods of waiting, and her life is just a lively existence of interesting things happening, one after another.

I’ve come to call this her “doggy default” behavior.

Granted, what I’ve just told you is just a whimsical story. But stories can give us insights if we just let their images run around in the real world.

Do you have any doggie-default behaviors?

I know I do.

There was the time — years, actually — that I stayed in a job that made me feel miserable. (More than one job, actually.) I also stayed doing the exact same job for years at a time (another mistake).

My wife Becky and I always go to the same few restaurants. We watch movies for entertainment but rarely anything else.

But I’m not totally defined by the doggie-default. I switched careers, from magazine writer/editor to therapist. (It took me almost 10 years, and they were the best 10 years of my life.)

I read both “entertainment fiction” (science fiction, thrillers, and horror) but also “serious fiction” that explores its characters’ lives deeply.

I’m always exploring in the realms of psychology and human behavior, personal spirituality, and even a little philosophy.

So to paraphrase Shunryu Suzuki, I’m fine just as I am…but I could use a little improvement.

There are many things to be said about the doggy default.

It can happen from ignorance of better alternatives, from apathy or laziness, from the comfort of the familiar. From circumstances out of our control, a lack of ambition or self-confidence, or from any of a number of deficits (for me, long-term depression) that leave one barely hanging on by the fingernails just to get through the day.

We can be resigned to the doggy default. We can know that we need to escape it and be fearful of the attempt. We can joyfully work toward something that will send it packing.

And I’ve learned some things about looking for something better than the doggy default.

It’s a risk, but just making the attempt makes me feel better about myself.

The more doggy defaults I’ve banished, the richer and deeper my life has become.

Curiosity has always been the fuel that has powered me on my journey.

And that (sorry!) is the doggone truth.

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Gregg Williams, MFT

Gregg Williams, MFT


Retired therapist. Married 26 years. Loves board games, deep movies. Boundless curiosity about everything. Over 13,600 people are following my articles.