This is RPG-ology #65: Dog, for April 2023.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally Game Ideas Unlimited: Dog, and is reposted here with minor editing [bracketed].
One night as the sun was rising I stepped outside to get something I needed before going to bed. Yes, this is a strange story; it gets stranger. It was the spring of ninety-seven, and I’d been working all night on something. I realized all of a sudden that there was a dog in our car. We didn’t own a dog at that time.
I returned to the living room to ask my wife whether she’d brought a dog home from somewhere. She denied all knowledge of the animal, and I figured someone must have seen it near our house, thought it must be ours, and let it in the car. I let it out, and it trotted off into the neighbors’ yard. Assuming it would find its way home, I went to bed.
I was up again about five hours later, and going outside I found that the dog was back in the car. I couldn’t guess whether someone was convinced it was ours and put it back in the car, or whether it leapt up through the open window. I returned and reported the situation to my wife. She insisted that we had to care for it at least until we could locate the owner; I agreed that as long as we were looking for the owner we could take care of it.
The dog is still with us, two addresses later. I quickly realized that my objections were futile, that I was not more welcome in the home than it, and I might as well just live with it.
So when I tell you that in addition to the cats we have had, we also have a dog, don’t mistake me for a pet owner. I live with pet owners. I myself do not understand the concept of keeping wildlife, and particularly predatory carnivores, in the home. My crippling allergies give me added incentive to keep my distance from animals, most of whom make it very difficult for me to continue breathing (I generally like to breathe). I call the dog dog, and she understands that that is what I call her; those who think of her as a pet have given her several names over the years. The veterinarian has her name as dog. But otherwise my opinion has been filed, probably in the circular file, and I’ve been outvoted. And of course all the animals seem to regard me their favorite person. Maybe animals like a challenge.
A lot of people will say that their dog thinks he’s a person; they’re wrong. The dog has no idea what a person is. He thinks we’re all dogs. He doesn’t understand why you don’t hear and smell as he does, or react to protect the pack territory when something is approaching. Dogs who exhibit human habits do so from following the examples of the rest of the pack. The secret to training animals, generally, is to figure out what they do naturally and why they do it, and then get them to do that when you want (or not to do it when you don’t want). The lion tamer gets the big cats up on the stool because when threatened a cat will move to higher ground. They have no idea that they’re “performing on command”. In their minds, they’re responding to a threat. Similarly, dogs herd sheep because they’re pack hunters, and the pack hunts by driving the prey into a controlled group before attacking. They’re waiting for the pack leader to start the attack, and don’t realize that it never comes.
And all of this relates to my quest to comprehend alien intelligence.
Years ago I started telling people that you had to understand the perceptions animals had of the world around them to understand how they would respond to it in your games. My first hint of this probably came from an Asian version of the Cinderella story in which a magic fish granted the poor girl her happiness. The wicked stepmother asked her natural daughter whether they needed to talk to a fish, and provided the answer that they didn’t: “What could the fish tell us? The water is wet?” And in fact, the fish cannot tell you that, because the water is not wet to the fish. In all likelihood, it perceives that boundary between water and air much as we perceive the boundary between atmosphere and stratosphere: this is where my world ends and outer space begins, because I cannot breathe at higher altitudes. And so when a group of elven player characters asked a passing badger what was ahead, they were told in all honesty that it was a room filled with towering creatures that walked on two legs, much as themselves. These creatures turned out to be gnomes, but to a badger, what’s the difference?
In Out of the Silent Planet C. S. Lewis (I told you he would come up again) introduces us to three alien races who live on another planet, plus a fourth for whom planets are interruptions moving through their natural home in space. One of them, talking to a human, is quite surprised to discover that there is only one intelligent race on earth. He thinks it must be very limiting to our discussions, when all thought “floats on the same blood” as he puts it. It is true that all our thoughts and all our perceptions, and all our literature and ideas, are ultimately those of humans; and as we try to get beyond how humans think to discover how other creatures who are not human and yet still intelligent might think, we are constantly called back to the problem that everything we know is known as humans. But if we can examine the way animals perceive and grasp reality, and know how that is different from our own understandings, we have the best available example of what it might be to be alien.
And so we note that the dog does not see very well, and sees no color; he can focus well enough to know where something is so he can bite it, but knowing what it is depends much more on smell. That sense of smell is not only extremely acute, but also extremely discriminatory: he smells the pizza as individual ingredients, can tell one person from another, or one dog from another, by individual odor, even being able to recognize when someone has been somewhere up to several days later. [Although it has a poor sense of the passage of time, it can tell when its owner is scheduled to return from a regular job based on the degree to which the person’s residual scent in the house has dwindled, as it reaches that level at which the owner usually returns.] Despite this acute sense of smell, strong odors don’t bother him. He actually likes things we think smell foul, and will roll in a strong scent to cover his own scent–as we use perfumes and colognes to smell better, [so we won’t smell like people,] he uses stenches to smell worse, so he won’t smell like a dog. He hears sounds that are higher and softer than those we hear.
The pack mentality which controls him says that there’s a pecking order. One creature is head of the pack, and all others must defer; but beyond that, each member has its place in the pack. This place is determined by who backs down to whom. (Dogs are generally low on the pack order when they live with humans, because the humans don’t back down.) Those at the top of the list eat first and get first choice of food; those at the bottom eat whatever is left, and are grateful. When the pack is threatened, everyone works together to frighten off the danger. Noise is good for this. The pack also cooperates in hunting. They will herd single prey in an arc, with some dogs driving the prey along the arc while others cut across the interior to meet the target ahead and take over, fresher because they have not run so far or so fast.
All of this gives us a glimpse into the thoughts of another being. The better we understand what makes the dog’s perceptions of reality different from ours, the more we are able to comprehend what it is to be alien. And as we add the cat, the horse, the antelope, the mouse, the eagle, and the fish to our understanding, we gain insight into that which separates one mind from another.
It might one day help us understand aliens we meet, if there are any out there. Meanwhile, it should help us create our own.