Animal Emotions

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The Genius of Dogs and The Hidden Life of Wolves

These two fact-filled and engaging books are well worth reading and sharing

Dogs and their wild relatives are "in". And, as a testament to the incredibly wide-ranging appeal of these most amazing and important nonhuman animal (animal) beings, two must read books have just been published.

The Genius of Dogs

We all know just how smart and crafty dogs can be. I've written some about the current research in past essays including one called "Stealth Dogs Steal Food in the Dark and Snatch it Quietly". Now, Duke University anthropologist Brian Hare who runs the Duke Canine Cognition Center (see also) and his wife Vanessa Woods, a research scientist at the center and author of Bonobo Handshake, have written a lovely book called The Genius of Dogs. Personal stories and facts from numerous research projects published in prestigious peer-reviewed professional journals make the book a delight to read. Hare and Woods also compare what we know about dogs to research conducted on other species. 

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Hare and Woods's book covers an amazing amount of material including the latest research on the cognitive abilities of our best friends. It's impossible to consider all of the fascinating topics they cover, but let me give you some teasers that will stimulate you to read the book.

After considering how dogs became dogs in a chapter called "The wolf event" (see also Mark Derr's How the Dog Became the Dog), and stressing that dogs "are not universally dumber than wolves" (p. 60) - they're not merely dumb-downed wolves - Hare and Woods tell us about cognitive skills such as their ability to make complex inferences and how a border collie named Chaser "learned the names of more than 800 stuffed toys, 116 balls, 26 frisbees, and more than 100 plastic objects." (p. 12) 

Reading on we also learn about a long-term research project in Siberia in which Hare partook that was concerned with the selective breeding of silver foxes (a variety of red foxes) to learn more about domestication. In a nutshell this study showed that selective breeding for foxes who are friendlier to humans also caused changes in their cognitive abilities so that the friendliest foxes could also read human gestures although they had not been bred to be better at this skill then other foxes. (p. 87) Fear of humans was replaced with a strong motivation to interact with humans. I find these studies to be extremely interesting and the pros and cons of them have been widely discussed, but I must say that when I watched a documentary that included some footage about this project the conditions in which the foxes were kept were appalling. 

Hare and Woods also consider topics such as the survival of the friendliest and how cooperation in wolves compares with that among feral dogs (p. 178), dog speak, including research on Chaser and another border collie named Rico who also learned the name of numerous objects, how dogs use different barks to communicate different things, how dogs may not really know what others know (p. 144), and how dogs can remember cooperative partners and may avoid being repeatedly cheated (p. 181).  

We also learn that while dogs can "discriminate themselves perceptually from other dogs (through scent, for instance), we have little experimental evidence suggesting they have a sense of self like we do, or that they can reflect upon what they know and do not know." (pp. 162; See also my essay on how dogs respond to their own and others' yellow snow and make sense of scents.)

Hare and Woods also consider research conducted by Barnard College's Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog and Psychology Today writer, on doggy guilt (pp. 183ff). They write that Horowitz "conducted an experiment to see whether dogs can feel guilty" but they misinterpreted just what Horowitz was actually trying to do. Her research did indeed show that people were not all that good at reading guilt in their dog but her data do not show that dogs cannot feel guilt. This is sort of a minor quibble in such a wide-ranging and comprehensive book, but I frequently hear people say that Horowitz's project showed dogs cannot feel guilt and this is not so (please see Dr. Horowitz's comment about this error).

Who's smarter than who?

One question that I'm frequently asked deals with species differences in intelligence - are dogs smarter than cats, are birds smarter than fish - for example. I always say that animals need to do what's needed for them to be "card-carrying" members of their species and we must remember that numerous nonhumans outperform us in many different ways, so the question about comparing different species doesn't mean much to me. Thus, I really like how Hare and Woods write about this topic: "The cognitive approach celebrates many different types of intelligence and liberates us from the idea that intelligence is a linear scale with sea sponges at the bottom and humans at the top. Asking if a dolphin is smarter than a crow is like asking if a hammer is better than a saw. Which is a better tool depends on the task at hand or, in case of animals, which challenges they must regularly confront to survive and reproduce." (p. 233)

So, are dogs smarter than cats? You can read more here in an essay that concludes: And what might the genius of cats be? Possibly, that they just can't be bothered playing our silly games or giving us the satisfaction of discovering the extent of their intelligence. 

Hare and Woods go on to write about teaching genius, dog training, and the healing power of dogs - how dogs are supposedly good for us (see also) and how and why we must be good for, and good to, them. Clearly, I liked this book a lot and highly recommend it. 

The Hidden Life of Wolves

Another new book that is closely related to the one about which I wrote above is called The Hidden Life of Wolves (see also) by Jim and Jamie Dutcher, with a foreword by Robert Redford. The Dutchers also have founded an organization called Living With Wolves and Jim is an Emmy-award winning filmmaker.

The Hidden Life of Wolves is loaded with wonderful photographs while "Short chapters introduce the wolves as individuals, describe the Dutchers' years of coming to know them, and address the complex conservation issues surrounding the near-extinction and now replenishment of the species in the wild. Sidebars explore myths about wolves, including Native American spirit stories, European fairy tales, and modern ranching hearsay."

"We as humans cannot fail to comprehend the tragedy of losing two-thirds of one’s family"

Let me whet your appetite with an excerpt from the closing of the Dutchers' second chapter. 

"Others have observed the consequences of broken wolf packs. In a June 2010 article in New Scientist, “Wolf Family Values,” Sharon Levy contrasts hunted and nonhunted wolf populations as reported by geneticist Linda Rutledge. In the area surrounding Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, wolves have been hunted legally for more than a century. During that time, hunters were responsible for two-thirds of all the wolf deaths in the region. When the hunting of wolves was banned in 2001, researchers saw a pronounced change in the social structure of packs.

"When hunting was legal, families were destroyed, pack cohesion was dissolved, and wolves gathered into small groups of often unrelated animals, resulting in loose, gang-like pseudopacks. After hunting was halted, the family unit returned. Where predation on moose was once nearly nonexistent, it increased dramatically. A moose provides much more meat than a deer, but it is more difficult to take down. An increase in moose predation indicates that stable families—families in which young wolves have time to learn and surviving parents to teach them—produce more competent hunters.

"We as humans cannot fail to comprehend the tragedy of losing two-thirds of one’s family. In war-torn countries we have witnessed the devastating legacy of uneducated, emotionally shattered human orphans. We also have ample evidence of what happens when we repeatedly damage animal societies. One of the most relevant examples is that of elephants, animals no less intelligent, social, and family-oriented than wolves. In Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, poachers routinely target older elephants for their tusks, thus shattering families, depriving the youngest elephants of critical social bonds, and destroying the herds’ knowledge of foraging areas and migration routes. In areas where poaching is high, rogue elephants—especially adolescent males—run amok, attacking other wildlife and each other, rampaging through villages, destroying crops, and sometimes even killing people. Biologists who study elephants say they are witnessing a total breakdown of elephant culture.

"Wolves are incapable of wreaking the kind of havoc that elephants can cause, but when we, in our shortsightedness, destroy the social structure and accumulated knowledge of a wolf pack, the survivors develop aberrant and dysfunctional behavior. We change their world so much that they no longer behave like wolves. Then we blame the wolves for the problems we’ve created.

"If we are to move forward and learn to coexist with wolves, then our treatment of them must reflect what we now know. A wolf is not a solitary creature, and a wolf pack is not a loose confederation of random individuals. Wolves care for one another. They play together into old age, they raise their young as a group, and they care for injured companions. When they lose a pack mate, there is evidence that they suffer and mourn that loss. When we look at wolves, we are looking at tribes—extended families, each with its own homeland, history, knowledge, and, indeed, culture."

I highly recommend this book. While dogs have many friends imperiled wolves need all the friends and help they can get because as I write this essay they are being ruthlessly and wantonly killed. This unnecessary and heartless slaughter not only breaks up families but also has had a huge negative effect on on-going researchThe Hidden Life of Wolves should go a long way in helping to protect these most amazing beings and to stop their reprehensible slaughter.  

So, if you're looking for a great way to spend time, here are two books from which you will learn a lot about the fascinating lives of other animals. 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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