Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/May 1883/A Superstitious Dog

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THAT many of the higher animals are possessed of reason does not, in the light of modern science and recorded facts, need any argument; only the question of degree remains to be determined in the future.

It is among domesticated species that we have the best opportunities for studying the mental phenomena of the lower animals, but here they are often greatly modified by contact with man; and, as these abnormal modifications are the ones that we can most readily interpret, they must necessarily form the major portion of our data.

Observation of their habits can not fail to convince us that many individuals, if not all of the brute creation, are possessed of a considerable degree of imaginative faculty. Every one has watched a dog in dream-land: his feet will go through the motion of running; occasionally a few smothered barks will be heard, showing his eagerness in the imagined chase in which he is engaged; or his tail will wag rapidly, probably indicating a meeting with a pleasant acquaintance. He may even start up, and then, awakened by his energetic action, his countenance will show plainly, as he turns to lie down again, how sheepish he feels about the exhibition that he has involuntarily made of himself.

In the fall of 1879 an eccentric pointer came into my possession, or rather he adopted me for his master. He was a genuine canine tramp, with all the peculiarities of the human variety; stealing his food or lodging whenever he had a chance, or deferentially begging it when that method would answer his purpose better. He had been in the habit, as we afterward found out, of roaming about from place to place in the town, selecting first one home and then another. He was something over two years old when he came to me; his color was coal-black, and he soon learned to answer to the cognomen of Pluto.

After he had been with me a few months, certain peculiar mental traits began to manifest themselves. He became subject to attacks of apparent mental derangement, lasting from a few minutes to several hours, which increased in frequency and violence up to the time when we disposed of him, two years later. These paroxysms would, at times, gain such complete control of his mind as to either paralyze or pervert all his physical senses.

The first one that I observed was brought on by the falling of a stick in the stove, back of which he was sleeping. Whereupon he started up, and commenced barking violently at a small leaf that was lying on the floor, every now and then making a dash toward it, after which he would retreat in the greatest terror. Then he would crawl slowly toward it again, and when he came within reach would strike at it with one of his fore-paws, drawing the paw back quickly with a little yelp, and then carefully looking it over as if to find an imagined injury, and licking it.

While the leaf was in the room he appeared to be entirely insensible to feeling or sound. Severe blows were administered with a stout stick, but they produced no more impression than if they had fallen upon the floor. He did not shrink, nor even by the slightest tremor give any indication that pain accompanied their infliction. Neither would he pay any attention to commands that were given in a loud voice close to his ear, although he had always shown himself obedient to any commands that he could understand; nor would any other sound, no matter how loud, cause him to make the slightest motion indicating that he had heard it.

After this his peculiar mental condition became more noticeable; the most trivial circumstance would sometimes be sufficient to destroy his mental equilibrium. A slight noise might bring on one of his paroxysms; but, singularly, it would generally have no effect unless it proceeded from the kitchen, which seemed to be to him a haunted chamber. Often in passing through the room he would cringe and put his tail between his legs.

At other times he would fix his eyes upon a spot on the ceiling or in a corner, or upon a towel hung up to dry, and would retreat from the object upon which his gaze was fixed, with dilated pupils and every other sign of intense fear of the imaginary "ghost." At these times his senses, instead of being simply deadened, were generally active, but in a perverted condition. If he was struck by a person behind him, instead of shrinking away, he would give a start toward the person who had struck him. Likewise a sudden noise, as the stamping of a foot, no matter from what part of the room it came, would invariably cause him to retreat violently from the imaginary object of his terror. He was apparently so prepossessed by one idea for the time being that, to his perverted senses, every noise was made and every blow was struck by the object which had excited him.

Sometimes he would stand on his hind legs and, directing his attention to the middle of the ceiling, would retreat backward, barking violently all the while. Then, seeming to be entirely mastered by his terror, he would drop on all-fours and run out of the house at full speed, with his tail between his legs. It would be some time before he could be induced to enter the house again, and even then he would tremble violently.

Certainly in the case of this dog the mental phenomena exhibited can safely be termed superstition, and, whether it was normal or super-induced by momentary insanity, it was plain that for the time being he actually saw "ghosts." For this reason the case is a very interesting one, as it furnishes additional evidence of the similarity existing between the mental actions of man and those of the lower animals.