Are You Projecting On Your Dog?


Glendale, California

Saturday, June 2, 2018


Are You Projecting On Your Dog?


Doesn’t  Lucy, my three-year-old Vizsla, look kind, aware, intelligent, even knowledgeable?

Can you see the eagerness in her eyes, the care, the attention?

In imagining her mind, I vacillate between these two extremes:

On the one hand, Lucy is conscious, misses me when I am away, and understands other beings. Of course she cannot identify them by name, species, or occupation. When she makes eye contact, she seems to understand others’ feelings. Her ears perk up, her head tilts, she sits or lies down, staring intensely.

Isn’t it truly love?

Borrowing Jerry Seinfeld’s joke, Lucy seems absolutely delighted when I come home from my office, non-verbally exclaiming:

You found the house where I live AGAIN!

What luck!

(Body wriggling, tail wagging, rolling over with joy).

Further, Lucy adores humiliating me through showing off her stamina. Sometimes on weekends, I’ll run, say, three miles with her. When I return home, she jumps up and down, as if saying:

When do we get started, man?

If the neighbors are watching, they think I’m lazy, neglectful of Lucy, not exercising her enough.

The gall,

they think!

On the other hand, Lucy might be a walking vegetable, a hamster, a squirrel. She sports STRONG DNA. Always on the hunt, she sniffs the ground following invisible, meandering trails of scents. She has amazing Buddha nature, more capable of staying in the moment than any of the many hominids she knows. Lucy also loves the trash, any kind of food, and any kind of movement—the faster the better.

And, just like a rat, Lucy can be classically conditioned. She easily learned to sit, stay, and fetch. However, DNA or no, she’s lousy at dropping whatever she fetches. She desperately clings to it, vigorously shaking it with her head (likely trying to break its neck) and ignoring orders (one word utterances) like:


Here, again, one wonders about conscious intention.

When desperately clinging to her rope or toy or bone, is Lucy deliberately messing with me?

Is she rebelling, willfully opposing me?

Much to my shame, I now wear a left-sided hearing aid costing some $2000. Two months after I bought it, Lucy chomped it right down. I’m pretty sure she was thinking:

A three-mile run, are you kidding me? That’s IT? And making me do stupid tricks like sit and stay? I’ll get ya back. 

Get me back she did, and in a big, expensive way.

(I had insurance for it, but the $150 deductible still smarted).

Here may be the most amazing evidence of her intelligence:

Lucy gets locked into the kitchen when alone, because she occasionally relieves herself when left to wander the house. One day she jumped the gate, pooped in a bedroom, and then jumped back over the gate. I noticed the tell-tale smell once I returned. Lucy looked at me as if exclaiming:

What, me? I have been in the kitchen the entire time. See? The gate is just where you left it. Someone else shit in your house, dude. Get over it!

These reflections reveal the blurry lines between reality, whatever that is, and projection. In terms of a dog’s consciousness, the truth appears to lie somewhere between my two proposals—intelligent soulfulness and dumb-as-a-hamster.

In any event, my relationship with Lucy—an intense, affectionate, even deeply dependent one (going both ways)—involves huge amount of projection.

What is projection?

Projection involves using the imagination, unconsciously, to believe another party—human, horse, dog—has qualities they may or may not have.

For example, you may be unconsciously angry, start to view your partner as angry, and later learn it was your anger you projected onto them. By definition, projection is an unconscious process. If you know you are projecting, you are not.

Continuing this exploration of dog consciousness, the projection can range from affection, like OMG she loves me so (!), to anger, like she enjoyed shitting in the bedroom, dancing after a three-mile-run, or rebelling with her fetch.

Projection can also include agency, meaning self-control or autonomy. Projection of agency may consist of a belief that Lucy wishes to humiliate me, oppose me, or eat up small expensive items.

Contemporary psychoanalytic scholars tend to view projection in much more complex ways, such as involving projections going both ways. Back to the spousal example, it is more likely that the anger, or at least irritation, goes both ways. But these psychoanalysts are mostly concerned with inter-human relationships.


Here now are my friends’, Linda and Jim’s, dog, Bradley.

What do you see in him?

I see nobility, patience, and a slight menace because he’s a Pit Bull.

(He’s the sweetest dog you’ve ever met).

Bradley brings to mind a few more thoughts about the minds of dogs.

In all likelihood, canine consciousness is probably limited. They perform certain amazing tasks, like rescuing skiers, herding sheep, silently pointing to prey animals and the like. They are definitely socially astute. Ostensibly well-behaved dogs might grab meat from a counter-top as soon as its owner’s back is turned. If caught in the act, dogs cringe. They look guilty; they look like they fear punishment. It difficult to understand these actions without assuming your dog has some sort of mental representation of how it is expected to behave.

Sadly, however, no good evidence exists to support such conclusions. Unlike chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, elephants, and magpies, dogs fail a common test of self-awareness that involves determining if they recognize themselves in mirrors. Dogs fail miserably. Even magpies—a bird, dammit—can recognize themselves in the mirror, and they have little, tiny brains.

Check out dogcognitionlab.com if you want more info on the mind of your dog. Among their many research projects, they demonstrated that dog’s enjoy playing. Perhaps they are staffed by people with OCD.

(Now, that’s almost certainly a projection, or is it?)

In support of my opinion of them, these folks conducted a “global citizen science project,” coded 187 play bouts via frame-by-frame video playback, and empirically demonstrated positive affect, meaning happiness, in dogs. They also concluded that dogs experience different kinds of joy, i.e. teasing or joking around. Another group of researchers believes dogs can make distinct decisions like:

Should I lie in the sun or go whine for food?

In response to a recent post about Trump’s Oedipal complex, one reader quipped:

You need to get a life.

Perhaps I do.

Or, perhaps, that person projected onto me.

Or, perhaps, these dog researchers indeed need to get a life.

In the final analysis, our inability to interview dogs limits our understanding of their consciousness. At this point, we only know that dogs are highly intelligent, extremely social, and fit well into human households.

Both Bradley and Lucy know to sit, stay, lie down, and fetch. They play together, although Lucy seems slightly intimidated by Bradley’s size. (Or is that a projection?) They definitely recognize the names of the hominids they know best; they recognize these voices, even when coming over the internet or by telephone. Ergo, they both recognize the meaning of some human words.

Perhaps dogs like Lucy and Bradley have accomplished this through centuries of domestication; or, perhaps, they are aliens who fully understand us, can communicate more completely than we hominids, and choose, in their Zen-like fashion, to stay silent, quietly meditating on finding the eternal in the moment.

Because we live so vibrantly through our imaginations, why not just stick with our perceptions, as Friedrich Nietzsche recommends?

Perception is reality!

Hey Lucy, I’m home, wanna play?

She looks up, just like the picture above.

Sure, I want to play.

Lucy replies through her behavior. She races for her fetch and, running to the other side of the yard, waits for me to call her.

Would life even be worth living without dogs?

I think not.

Good girl, Lucy!



Nietzsche, F.  (2001).  The pre-platonic philosophers, transl. G. Whitlock.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Nietzsche, F. (2002). Human. All Too Human. Trans R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published in 1878).


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