“Good Dog, Smart Dog” – the continuing study of dog learning shows how little we know (and how much we project)

[“Good Dog, Smart Dog” – NYT 11/3/09]

The matter of what exactly goes on in the mind of a dog is a tricky one, and until recently much of the research on canine intelligence has been met with large doses of skepticism. But over the last several years a growing body of evidence, culled from small scientific studies of dogs’ abilities to do things like detect cancer or seizures, solve complex problems (complex for a dog, anyway), and learn language suggests that they may know more than we thought they did.

Their apparent ability to tune in to the needs of psychiatric patients, turning on lights for trauma victims afraid of the dark, reminding their owners to take medication and interrupting behaviors like suicide attempts and self-mutilation, for example, has lately attracted the attention of researchers.

In September, the Army announced that it would spend $300,000 to study the impact of pairing psychiatric service dogs like Jet with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. Both the House and Senate have recently passed bills that would finance the training and placement of these dogs with veterans.

“I believe that so much research has come out lately suggesting that we may have underestimated certain aspects of the mental ability of dogs that even the most hardened cynic has to think twice before rejecting the possibilities,” said Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and an author of several books on dogs.

Since the language-learning/fast-mapping research on Rico the Border Collie, the new common wisdom is that smart dogs can learn up to 250 words, average dogs get about 165, and that we should directly compare dogs’ intelligence and experience to that of a 2-3 year old human toddler.

This new ‘conventional wisdom’ is as presumptuous, projection-based, and inaccurate as the old notion that dog’s are ‘dumb’ animals.

… Clive D. L. Wynne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida who specializes in canine cognition and has himself said he met a border collie who knew 1,500 words, takes issue with efforts to compare human and canine brains.

He argues that it is dogs’ deep sensitivity to the humans around them, their obedience under rigorous training, and their desire to please that can explain most of these capabilities. They may be deft at reading human cues — and teachable — but that doesn’t mean they are thinking like people, he says. A dog’s entire world revolves around its primary owner, and it will respond to that person to get what it wants, usually food, treats or affection.

“I take the view that dogs have their own unique way of thinking,” Dr. Wynne said. “It’s a happy accident that doggie thinking and human thinking overlap enough that we can have these relationships with dogs, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that dogs are viewing the world the way we do.”

Dogs have a canine way of thinking, experiencing, and communicating – not a human one.

We can’t even begin to comprehend dogs’ experience of the world, given the sheer number of scent receptors they have: humans have no context in which they can empathize with – or really, even creatively imagine – what it is to be a dog just on the level of scent. Add in tens of thousands of years of co-evolution with humans and the extremely complex resulting interrelationship, the ways in which dogs’  ‘animal’ trumps their ‘domesticated’ (whether people confuse them with purses and other fashion accessories or not), their physical experience of the world on a purely structural level, their vocal cord structure creating an inability to speak our languages and our terrible performance in understanding – or paying attention to – theirs, and what we know is this: very little. Might as well approach them with some humility to go with our appreciation, and quit it with the infantilizing anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism can be fun, and on the level of fun, I do it all the time. I enjoy making stupid (projection-based) jokes about Gilly hacking into my computer and hijacking the Hubble telescope. But when it comes to truly attempting to understand Gilly’s experience of the world, or what he brings to the table in our interactions, all I really know is what I see and how I interpret it.

That also does not mean that interpreting dogs as intelligent and individual from us – as something more than moving ottomans – is anthropomorphizing.

The whole ‘dogs don’t have fore-brains therefore they are incapable of abstract reasoning’ is basically equivalent to speculating that because ottomans don’t have scent receptors built into their naugahyde, they can’t serve any function except as tea-trays.

The more we know, the more we ought to realize that direct comparison between human and dog ‘intelligence’ is futile and speculative.

We know they adapt to our culture and communication, we know that to a lesser degree we adapt to theirs, and we know that this has proven helpful and pleasant for all involved – at least when we humans don’t use our fantasized master-race approach to animals to run dog-fighting rings.

We also know the one thing that seems to continually get lost in evaluations of dog intelligence:

we are different species.

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One response to ““Good Dog, Smart Dog” – the continuing study of dog learning shows how little we know (and how much we project)

  1. Pingback: More on animal intelligence: « Gilgablog

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