September 16, 2010
Very early Wednesday morning, about 4 AM, Bobka the dog gave a sudden, high-pitched whine in his sleep. The sound woke Rik; my insomnia had kept me awake most of the night. We looked at each other in bed and said, what kind of nightmare can a dog have? They forgot to feed me?
As I lay awake after Rik and Bobka went back to sleep, it occurred to me that a dog's nightmare could actually be an existential experience. Dogs are pack animals. They never like to be alone. Anyone who has experienced the neighborhood phenomenon of the lonely, housebound dog who barks at any passing car or other animal, or who howls constantly, is familiar with this. Pumpkin, our beloved cocker spaniel, was particularly sensitive to loneliness. It didn't matter if we were gone five minutes, five hours, or five days, he gave us the same over-the-top, full-out, wiggle-butt greeting after he had to spend time alone.
I think that Bobka's nightmare was related to abandonment. Certainly Pumpkin had been abandoned twice that we know of: once at a shelter by his (presumably) original people, and once by the rescuer who rehabilitated him and gave him to us. He didn't know that the rescuer was providing only a temporary home. By the time Pumpkin came to us, he had separation anxiety which he never really got over, even after spending seven years with us. That's why we got Bobka, to be a companion for Pumpkin.
Perhaps we will never know if dogs experience existential angst about being alone. But I can't think of a better explanation for a doggie nightmare than the realization that ultimately, we are each alone, inside our own heads, no matter who is cuddled up next to us.