Lola wearing a knit hat. She likes to pull hats off my head and run away with them. So I thought I’d just give her the hat. She did not like it, as you can maybe tell.

I have resisted writing this essay for some time.

As modern day, Western-educated Americans, we’re not supposed to think these kinds of thoughts. At least, I don’t personally know many people who do, and most of the people I do know that think this way, have usually seemed a bit weird to me. Maybe, with this writing, I’m crossing over to the other side.

The thing is, I’ve come to think of my dog, dogs generally, and maybe even most animals, as people.

The beginning of that last sentence is sweet, the middle is charitable, and the last part is perhaps revolutionary when you begin to consider its implications, which I’ll get to in a minute.

But first, how did I get here?

Lola, my three-year old goldendoodle, is my fourth dog. There was Sam, Chou-chou (I didn’t name her), and Jacques (again, not the namer) before her. They were all wonderful dogs, whom I loved and cared for. Each had their own predilections, habits, and ways of interacting with humans, but in my mind, they never arose to personhood, as important as they might have been.

I’m not entirely sure why I never considered it with them, but I have some thoughts about why I now consider Lola a person.

She’s small, twenty-two pounds, as of her vet visit last week, which means she’s more of a house dog than an outdoor dog – although she loves sniffing around in nature as much as any creature. As a house dog, she spends a lot of time lazing around, often on a couch or bed. She’ll curl up next to a person, pushing her body against them, especially in cold months, to feel our contact. She sniffs out every corner of the house, and has strong opinions about which toy she wants and where to put it when she’s done. Lola is fiercely loyal, often putting her slight size between us and mailmen, dogs, or other threats, barking viciously. She’s gotten in tangles with much bigger dogs. As a pup this resulted in her getting bitten on the face so badly, she needed surgery to fix her nasal cavity. 

These are normal dog things; the kinds of stuff that allows us to “otherize” dogs: They just have their animal ways, and we can’t connect with them.

Except she does communicate with us. Lola is very insistent when she wants a thing: Dinner, attention, to play. But also when it’s time for us to go to bed. When we’re supposed to get up in the morning. When she wants to see another dog she knows. She uses body language, like pushing her snout into us, “sitting at us”, where she sits upright and stares at a person intently. She has a frustrated sneeze, a combination yawn and whine, and certain sounding barks, like “I’m stuck”, “stop that”, and “Is that you?”, a bark she uses when she thinks someone she knows has come home. They all sound different and are indescribable in human terms.

We’ve also taught her words, like dinner, upstairs, downstairs, backyard, park, outside, inside, and go get [noun here], that can include certain person names or various toys. She recognizes them all and will get them, depending on her mood – and with body language, her mood is clear.

She also knows some limited sign language, particularly come get scratches, which is two hands held parallel in front of you, and all done, which is the same as the ASL sign. All done is used for no more food, no more play, and done with any activity, including a bath and brushing. She understands and changes her demeanor when she sees the signs.

So, based on all this, it would seem that we have a creature we can communicate with in lots of circumstances – and a creature that communicates with us. With all this communication going on, we begin to learn things she wants and needs under certain circumstances – personality.

Some other things entered my thinking about Lola, especially the documentary “My Octopus Teacher”, where a diver built a relationship with a wild octopus over the course of a year. Part of the wonder of the movie is that an octopus is so alien to us, but the diver’s openness to learning about another creature’s needs allowed him to consider how the octopus was seeing him. This is a simple, yet extraordinary question: How does a non-human creature consider us?

Lately, I’ve gone deeper into this question, as I’ve read Ed Yong’s extraordinary “An Immense World”, which discusses the many senses of animals and the experiences they might have as a result. For instance, catfish are covered with tasting sensors all over their bodies, meaning they are tasting everything around them at all times. This “umwelt” or way of experiencing the world due to your available senses, is extremely difficult for us to perceive. Just considering how it would be to be constantly tasting, all over your body, sort of breaks your brain. 

But, as Yong points out, with the exception of raptors, humans have the sharpest sight of any creature. We can see farther and in more detail than any other creature. That’s something my dog can’t perceive, something I’ve noticed when I see an unfriendly dog at the end of the block, but Lola can’t tell they’re there. Yet, Lola’s sense of smell is mind boggling to me, and she spends a great deal of time smelling things, clearly thinking about it. What do these smells tell her, and how does she catalog them? How does it make her perception of the world different from mine?

As she wanders through the world, it seems her understanding is a bit hazy. Like every other dog, she lacks ambition, has limited anticipation, and as a result is much more responsive to immediate inputs. In many ways, she behaves like a young human toddler, a nickname my wife and I use for her, “Our toddler,” since many of her needs seem similar to a two or three-year old human – although one that’s more mobile and potty trained.

As a result, I don’t think Lola, or any other dog, has very complex thoughts. For instance, the concepts of politics, physics, or baking a cake, are not available to her. And yet, she clearly has emotions. Lola cares about certain things, and certain creatures. Not just humans, but also other dogs, like Lilly who lives down the street.

To me, this seems to be about the same as a human toddler: Almost no sense of self, or ability to have complex understandings, but definitely has ideas about others, their relationship to other creatures, and an understanding of how to manipulate other creatures to obtain desired outcomes.

These, to me, seem to be the most basic elements of personhood.

Lola is a person.

And so must be other dogs, I just haven’t studied them or built a relationship so that I can interact with them.

And then…what about squirrels? Crows? Cows? Pigs?

All of these creatures have an umwelt of their own, an understanding of how the world works, and they likely attempt to manipulate other creatures to achieve individual desires.

If a squirrel were taken out of the rough, wild environment and given a life of comfort like my dog (and most humans) would they begin to communicate with us through body language and certain vocalizations? If we treated pigs and cows that way, what would we learn?

Of course, typical pigs in a factory farm don’t have these abilities, just as a human raised in a tiny cage with no social interaction would also be mentally stunted. Developing a mind requires resources, just as does developing a body. 

Are we missing out on something by stunting these creatures?

Science fiction writer David Brin wrote a series of books about “uplift”, where future humans gained technology to accelerate the brain growth and evolution of selected creatures. In the books, chimps are uplifted, and they become scientific geniuses with anger management problems while dolphins also get uplifted to become great starship pilots with a taste for poetry and a deep-seated worship of whales. Brin imagines what it would be like if humans had to coexist with other Earth beings that have different perceptions of the universe. It’s fun and intriguing since we already experience these creatures, but have trained ourselves to think of them as less than human.

What if other creatures aren’t less than us, but just different? What if they are people?

When Lola dies, which will presumably be before me, I will grieve deeply. She has touched me, altered my life in a way no other person has done. I look for her; need her presence. She has lifted me up in down moments, and celebrated with me in up ones. I have worried about her health, and she has let me care for her.

Aren’t these the indelible experiences of knowing a person? Are we ignoring more potential people – other animals – in our world simply because that ignorance is convenient?

I don’t have clear answers, but the questions are nagging me. Maybe they are for you too.