Science used to say a resounding no. Then, a few cognition researchers said maybe. Dog owners insist an obvious yes. Where are we now?
While the jury is out on a definitive answer, an increasing pile of data is pointing to yes. To some extent. It began with behavioral experiments on dogs’ abilities to follow the human pointing gesture. In order to follow a pointing gesture, one needs to have a minimal understanding of the origin of the point.
But then, researchers turned their attention to dogs’ abilities to determine if they are being watched. In their study titled “Dogs Steal in the Dark,” Juliane Kaminski, Andrea Pitsch, and Mike Tomasello found that dogs are aware of whether they can be seen by the human…not whether or not they can see the human. In a series of experiments, they found dogs were more likely to steal if the human was lit (the dog could see them) but the food was not (the human could not see the dog steal). Likewise, Brian Hare and his team at the Duke Canine Cognition lab found that dogs behave differently if a human is watching them, or if that human’s vision is blocked either by blackout sunglasses or by turning their back to the dog.
Now, to add to the growing behavioral data, Gregory Berns’s new book, How Dogs Love Us, provides yet unpublished data to suggest that there is neurological evidence to further suggest dogs think about how we think. Neural activation believed to be mirror neurons, suggests dogs are trying to view the world from another’s point of view. He further states, “The evidence continues to accumulate that not only are dogs sensitive to where humans’ attention is directed, but dogs are also sensitive to the social context. They know when it is appropriate to attend to their human’s attention and when it is not. This means that dogs have more than a theory of behavior. They have a theory of mind” (Berns, pg. 173).
What does this mean for dogs, trainers, and owners? No longer can dog trainers and owners ignore that dogs are thinking, feeling, conscious beings. I’m far from making a call for some sort of person hood status. There is still much to be learned. However, as the aborigines once told Temple Grandin, “Dogs make us human.”
Continuing to ignore the data on non-human animal consciousness, especially dogs and other species who depend on us for security and care, highlights a growing lack of empathy. Have we really become so desensitized that we can justify abuse in the name of training? We must look in a mirror and consider how others, including our dogs, see us.
Kaminksi, J., Pitsch, A., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Dogs steal in the dark. Animal Cognition, doi: 10.1007/s10071-012-0579-6.
Berns, G. (2013). How dogs love us. New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; New York, New York.
It’s true. I don’t get to post on this page as often as I’d like to. Ok, I admit it. I don’t make the time to post on this page as much as I’d like to. It’s a by-product of being in grad school, or so I’m told. That said, sometimes a piece of news so fantastic, comes to the surface that one must take the time to share it. This is what happened today, when the NY Times daily email came to my inbox.
There is quite a bit of debate surrounding the new practice of “ratting” in New York. Read the Times’ article
First, members of the Humane Society of the United States are concerned about the welfare of the rats. The claim is that these animals deserve a quick and painless death, as opposed to one of being hunted. I would argue these individuals have never seen the decisive, instantaneous kill of a Jack Russell or Patterdale terrier. Second, the veterinary community pushes that owners are putting their dogs at risk for diseases like leptospirosis and rabies that may enter the dog’s body via cuts and bites from the rats. While I agree, to some extent, I would suggest that many of these owners have healthy, well fed animals whose immune systems can handle most lacerations and bites. And that is in the rare cases that serious illness has the opportunity to enter. Most ratters are quite skilled at biting before being bitten.
So, what is the argument in favor of this activity? Just like EarthDogging and Scent Work, ratting is providing a natural outlet for an innate skill and drive these dogs possess. Over generations of selection, humans influenced the behavioral confirmation of these dogs, creating dogs with a specific need that must be fulfilled. The owners of dogs participating in the RATS program feel they are offering their dogs a legal outlet for breed specific mental stimulation. While I agree, there are substitutes for this behavior (a good session of tug or play with a flirt pole can be a valuable outlet for most terriers), one cannot deny there is something appealing about watching a dog thrive doing what it was bred to do.
Until humans are willing to forgo owning breeds with specific tendencies and traits, it will be forever important to acknowledge your dog’s natural talents and drives and provide opportunities to partake activities that allow them to expel energy related to those drives. Herding dogs need to herd. Terriers need to hunt. Scent hounds need to smell and track. I’m so glad to see a growing trend towards acknowledging who our dogs are, and providing them an opportunity to be that dog.
It’s been a while since I posted (the perils of grad school, where does the time go?). Ironically, the last post I made was about the “black box,” and now, new research and a new book are taking a detailed look inside that box.
How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, by Gregory Berns is set to hit bookstores on October 22. (Click here to preorder) In this book, Berns details the process of training dogs to voluntarily enter an MRI machine, holding still while Berns and his team take the first conscious images of the dog’s brain at work. Specifically, the caudate nucleus, a feature of the brain associated with learning, sensory perception, and construction of emotional associations, was found to “light up” in response to hand signals trained to indicate a hot dog treat is being delivered. I have it on preorder, and I can’t wait for it to ship.
From Patricia McConnell to Hal Herzog to Marc Bekoff, many of the top names in canine cognition, behavior, and anthrozoology are weighing in on the potential impact of this research. Are we embarking on proof that dogs deserve personhood? If so, what does personhood mean? Have we proven anything that wasn’t already known? I encourage you to google “MRIs and dogs” and read the multitude of opinions as they cascade over the internet in the days leading up to the book’s release.
So, are dogs “persons”? Well, that will depend upon your definition of a person. From a legal standpoint, a person is an animal (human or nonhuman) who is deserving of specific rights of autonomy and security. As more people adopt dogs as family members, I would argue that there is a strong pull towards personhood for dogs.
This does not mean we will consider them humans. That is a different “animal” altogether. But I don’t think it would hurt to provide emotional, physical, and social security to man’s best friend.
Behaviorism, a psychological and animal behavior model defined by the work of John Watson and B.F. Skinner, sets forth that we can only define the world by cause and effect. That is, since we can never truly know what is going on inside another animal’s mind (this includes humans), we must assume that everything occurs as a result of reinforcers and punishers acting upon one’s behavior. The mind is a proverbial “black box” because it’s true secrets are locked away from the observer.
Ok, so that is a really condensed, watered down explanation of behaviorism. I admit it. But in the days of animal cognition research, biochemistry, and MRIs, it amazes me that many people still hold dear to the concept that we can’t possible know what an animal is thinking. On an almost daily basis these days, new research is released establishing the rich emotional and cognitive lives in all animals – from birds to bees to humans to, well, trees. Yes, even plants are now being studied as living beings who do math to determine growth paths and survival rates.
So why, then, are so many still afraid to discuss concepts like a dog’s love or elephants in mourning? Personally, I think it has to do with confronting one’s paradigms. It can be frightening to consider changing a long held belief…especially one that, until relatively recently, science said was correct. It’s funny, but I hear dog trainers regularly talk about how dogs are creatures of habit and routine…in my observation, humans inability to be flexible to change in the world around them rivals the most anxious of dogs.
I’m not saying that we go in the completely opposite direction, either. Anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to non-human animals, is also a real phenomenon. There is no research yet to suggest that a dog is capable of premeditating a crime and feeling guilt after the fact. And ravens, though quite the trickster, do not appear to feel they have done anything wrong in stealing your antenna ball, again.
No, what I’m suggesting is an open mind to understanding each species as its own, unique, living, breathing, thinking, feeling animal (or plant, but we’ll save that discussion for another time). When you look at your family dog or your neighbor’s cat, recognize that there is an animal with needs, desires, fears, and joys…just like you. These things may be different for each animal, and they are different for each human, as well. It is that uniqueness that makes this world such a beautiful place.
It’s a common scene. An owner is walking their dog through the park. They are careful to observe the rules. Poop bags? Check. Avoiding no dog areas? Check. Leash? Check. And suddenly, a rambunctious, off leash dog is headed their way.
If all goes well, the other owner collects their dog, apologizes, and is off on his or her way. But all too frequently, they yell from across the park, “It’s Okay! He’s Friendly!” Maybe they aren’t confident in their dog’s recall. Maybe they are embarrassed. Maybe they don’t believe in leashes. Whatever the reason, the responsible owner now finds themselves trying to control an interaction between their trained, leashed dog and an excited, overly friendly (hopefully) off leash dog. What can we do?
1. Be proactive. It is important to be aware of your environment at all times. While we don’t want to nervously look around, seeing boogie dogs in every shadow, we still need to be aware of the potential interactions for our dog. Do you see the joggers coming up the path? Will your dog bark uncontrollably at the end of their leash, or are you ready to make this a training opportunity? Likewise, many times the excitable, off leash dog can be avoided by seeing them early and giving a bit of extra space or going the opposite direction.
2. Be your dog’s advocate. It is human nature to want to be polite. But it is important to understand that this off leash dog (and his owner) are not. Let’s say, for a moment, that you are having a cup of coffee with your friends outside your favorite cafe. How will you react if I suddenly run up to you, sit on your table, and grab your coffee to take a sniff? Am I being friendly? Or simply intrusive? This is how your dog likely views the random, unknown off leash dog. Even if your dog is the most friendly, playful dog in the world in an off leash setting, he may not enjoy having his play time with you interrupted so rudely.
And you know what?
It is okay to stand up for your dog.
Simply call out, “Leash your dog, please!” Or “Call your dog!” I have even gone so far as to remind the person that this is a leash only park. If you are lucky enough to have a dog without reactivity issues, you want to keep it that way. And if you have a previously reactive dog, one unpleasant interaction with a loose dog could ruin all your hard work.
3. Always keep treats handy. Yes, I never go to the park without treats. Here’s why. First of all, I understand that my dogs are always learning. I also understand that we all have off days. Remember those joggers? I would rather step to the side and take the opportunity to teach my dogs that those scary, fast moving strangers bring wonderful treats.
BUT, having those treats handy provides a second security blanket. Many times, when that off leash dog comes barreling over to say, “hi!” a handful of treats on the ground can provide a terrific distraction. I caution that if you have a food guarding dog, this may not be the best option. However, you will likely toss the treats and get out of dodge. And if that owner is concerned about what you just fed their dog, well, their dog shouldn’t have been loose to begin with.
There are plenty of other alternatives. For example, if your dog is friendly AND you know he has a rock solid recall, you might opt to drop his leash. Be cautious of your location and be certain of the other dog’s body language. Are you sure he really is friendly? When in doubt, don’t take the chance.
There are also an assortment of protection sprays, my favorite being Spray Shield. It is a citronella spray that startles the dog with a smelly burst, giving you just enough time to get away. I advise against using pepper spray as you could risk a wind shift that results in you or your dog receiving a dose of painful, burning spray. And this would make it much harder to get away from the oncoming dog.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that every dog owner will suddenly understand the importance of keeping their dog leashed any time in the immediate future. Although, the reasons are plentiful beyond manners. Increasingly busy streets, poor training and a lacking recall can result in a deadly combination. In any case, it is possible and necessary to consider your dog first whenever you are faced with an unleashed dog.
While we want to maintain a sense of courtesy and manners to other humans, at the end of the park trip, we are responsible to and go home with our dog.