How Canine Mathematics Came Into Being

I thought I’d kick this project off by talking about a story I once wrote under somewhat extreme circumstances and use it to show how your creativity can be sparked into life in ways that you may not necessarily expect. I’m going to present it as an annotated version of the story, using a little technical trick I’ve put together. You can either choose to read the story straight or click on any of the little ‘i’ superscripts that are scattered throughout the piece to find out some background as to what was going on at the time when I was writing it. ⓘ 

I won’t say much more about the story at this point, except to say that it was written during a write-a-thon for Children in Need a few years back, run by an online writing school called Alex Keegan’s Bootcamp. I was never a full-time member of Bootcamp, but they allowed lesser mortals to join them for charity events like this one. The idea was that every hour, on the hour, you’d be emailed a set of prompts. You’d spend the next hour writing a story based on those prompts and then you’d email it back at the end. You’d get sponsored for every story you wrote. It’s one of the most extraordinary writing things I’ve ever done and I’m amazed that anything remotely coherent came out of it. ⓘ 

The version presented here is the slightly polished and edited one that got included in my collection Dot Dash. However, the changes made were quite small and the story is pretty much as it emerged on the night.

Here we go.

Canine Mathematics

 ⓘ  The dog  ⓘ  stared at me with what seemed to be disgust.

“Look at the state of you,” it said. ⓘ 

“I know,” I replied, contrite. After seven or eight pints of lager ⓘ , there’s nothing much unusual about a talking dog.

I say seven or eight pints, but drinking is subject to some kind of pseudo-Heisenberg principle ⓘ , where the ability to measure the quantity consumed is inversely proportional to that quantity. If I’d been remotely sober, I could have probably put together some kind of formal equation ⓘ , but after the aforementioned seven-or-eight-plus-or-minus-delta ⓘ , it was a hopeless task, and I gave up after a few desultory attempts. This was before I met the dog.

I was sitting on a park bench staring down at the pool of vomit between my feet. ⓘ  The shape of the pool was irregular, and I was considering the possibilities of complex integration around the curve of its perimeter ⓘ when a further wave of reverse peristalsis ⓘ  forced its way out and distorted it.

The dog was still watching me, suspiciously.

“Do you realise what you’re doing to the olfactory gradients around here?” it said, cocking its head on one side. ⓘ  “How am I going to find my way past here for the next few days when there’s that whiff throwing me off course?”

“Sorry,” I mumbled. The dog continued to stare at me. It was a golden retriever. I’ve had a few encounters with golden retrievers on my way home from drinking in my time, although that isn’t say that I haven’t met my fair share of spaniels, poodles and labradors. There’s no real pattern to it, apart from the fact that they tend to talk to me in this tediously moralistic and higher-than-thou tone of voice. I am beginning to loathe dogs. ⓘ 

“How’s the work going, anyway?” it said. ⓘ 

“It’s fine. Or, at least, my funding’s been renewed for next year, at least.”  ⓘ 

“Really?”  ⓘ 

“Yup. Now, look, I hope you don’t mind, but I’d rather you didn’t keep talking to me like this. People may be watching.” ⓘ 

“I could help you.”

“I doubt it.”

“You reckon? See that vomit of yours? Here’s a rough equation for its perimeter.” It scrawled a few vague lines on the pavement with its paw.  ⓘ 

“Ah,” I said.

“Well, what do you think?”

“It’s just a load of scratches.” ⓘ 

The dog rolled its eyes. “Well, you might think that, but I assure you that it’s anything but.” It called out to a passing mongrel, who came over and nodded furiously, before declaring, “A few inaccuracies in the higher level terms, but fundamentally sound.” Then it trotted off into the night. ⓘ 

“You see?” said the retriever, making a few minor adjustments. “You’re just not understanding the terminology.”

“Can’t you write a proper equation instead?”

“A proper equation? You’re joking. You humans make things far too complicated. I wouldn’t have the time or the patience. No, if you want to understand, you’ll need to learn how to do canine maths.” ⓘ 

“You’re taking the piss, aren’t you?” I said, exasperated.

“Certainly not. Are you?” it countered.

“I don’t need to justify myself. My mathematics is absolute. That’s why it’s called Pure Mathematics. It does what it says on the tin.”

“There are no absolutes,” said the dog. “Whatever fundamental principles you derive, they’ll simply reflect the way your brain is made. ⓘ  The same with ours, except that we learnt long ago to express our mathematics in a universal language.”

“I don’t believe this.”

“I’ll prove it,” said the dog, waving a paw at a ginger tom who was up a nearby tree. The cat leapt down and came over warily, keeping its distance.

“What do you think?” said the retriever to the cat. It sat staring at the scratches on the pavement for a minute or two, deep in thought.

“Well,” it said eventually, in a surprisingly deep voice, “it’s fundamentally sound, but you need to use a more accurate multiple of π.” Then it turned and shot up the tree again. ⓘ 

“See?” said the dog.


In my office, I am staring at a sheet of paper covered in scratches. It still doesn’t make any sense to me. ⓘ  I lied to the dog: my funding application is still awaiting approval. ⓘ  If I could just come up with some new insights into complex integration, I might just swing it.  ⓘ  But I didn’t get the dog’s address, and in any case I have a horrible feeling that he may have been lying to me as well. ⓘ 

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