Animal Emotions

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The Messes Dogs Make: Science Shows "The Dog" Doesn't Exist

A new book about dogs is a must read because we also learn how science is done.

A few weeks ago I wrote a short essay called "What Do Dogs Know, Think, and Feel? A New Book Tells It All" about an excellent new book edited by another Psychology Today writer, Alexandra Horowitz, called Domestic Dog Cognition and BehaviorNow, as I'm preparing to present a few lectures at a seminar in Italy called “The emotional life of dogs and other animals: joy, sadness and empathy, their evolution and the role of humans”, I've been revisiting Dr. Horowitz's outstanding book and want to say a bit more about it because while a number of people have complained about its price and say they'll never buy it or be able to read it, no one to my knowledge has complained about its detailed and comprehensive content. And, I doubt they will. It's really a great book that deserves wide readership. 

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The essays in this latest encyclopedia of dogs are dog centered in that they weren't written merely because dogs are so important to humans or from the perspective of what dogs can do for us. Dogs are wonderful animals to study in their own right and from whom we can learn a good deal about them and other animals including wild canids and humans. The book "reflects a modern shift in science toward considering and studying domestic dogs for their own sake, not only insofar as they reflect back on human beings."

What is truly invaluable, in addition to the incredible amount of information that is presented and discussed in detail, is that some of the authors write about the individual differences of the dogs being studied and how these differences can influence the data that are collected. There also are discussions about how the data are actually collected and how differences in methods can also influence results. Scientists also interpret and explain the same data in different ways. These crucial discussions really made me think not only about who dogs are but also how science is done and the results disseminated. They also made me realize that normative thinking about an animal called "the dog" is misleading and shortsighted. The same can be said for all animals who display a lot of individual variation in behavior. 

The big picture view of Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior: "The dog" doesn't really exist and they're not always our "best friends" nor we theirs

There's a big picture to Dr. Horowitz's book that needs to be recognized and appreciated. Yes, this landmark book is pricey, and there's little that can be done about it. I can only hope a much less expensive edition is published because in addition to being a comprehensive and up-to-date encyclopedia about dogs, there are many extremely valuable lessons in it about how scientific research is done and how results from different studies that focus on similar phenomena need to be carefully compared and analyzed. It's a gem for critical thinking and nothing can be more important for students and researchers and non-researchers alike

So, for example, do dogs always perform better or worse than wolves in tests of cognitive skills such as following a human's gaze or pointing? No, they don't. There's a lot of variation and the results depend on the individual histories and personalities of the dogs who are being studied, the research environment, and the methods used. Are there consistent breed differences? Not really. My reading is that while some general statements can be made about breed-typical behavior, it all comes down to the traits of the individual dog. I think anyone who's shared their home with dogs of the same breed will tell you that there are notable and interesting differences among individuals that rival between-breed differences. 

The reason I stress that "the dog" doesn't really exist is because of the variation among individuals and breeds. So, when someone says dogs do this and wolves don't, or dogs always do this or that, these are misleading claims. We must be careful of oversimplifying what we actually know about "the dog." And, of course, this isn't a criticism of the researchers or the work they do, but rather a fascinating fact that makes the science of dog cognition and behavior (and their emotional lives) all the more interesting and captivating. 

Most dogs are not "first-world pets"

Another important aspect of whom dogs are centers on the fact that "the majority of dogs are not first-world pets" but rather "scavengers on the periphery of people's lives." It's been estimated that around 75% of the billion or so dogs on the planet live in the developing countries and many are pretty much on their own. They also are not always really "our best friends" nor are we necessarily their best friends.

These ideas form the basis for an essay by Monique Udell, Kathryn Lord, Erica Feuerbacher, and Clive Wynne called "A Dog's-eye View of Canine Cognition." It is the most critical essay in the book in that the authors take on a number of "super stars" who have done a lot of excellent comparative research in the area of dog cognition and behavior motivated by the close and long-term historical association of dogs and humans during the process of domestication and the fact that wolves are the common ancestors of dogs (see Mark Derr's excellent book How the Dog Became the Dog and his insightful and well-researched essays for Psychology Today). They argue, instead (some might say too fast and with a bit too much zeal), that "the sensitivity of pet dogs to human actions and intentions that has been a major focus of recent research is unlikely to be a special adaptation or case of co-evolution, but rather is the expression of basic processes of conditioning as well as social and biological traits that domesticated and wild canids share." Taken literally, but I don't think too liberally, this basically says that much of the detailed research on dog cognition isn't worth much at all. The researchers whose work has been dismissed for one reason or another have responded to these criticisms and references can be found in this book and elsewhere. Surely their work is valuable and contributes to the increasing database on dog cognition and behavior. There has to be room for different views in this rapidly growing field of study. 

The authors also note that before we make generalizations about dog behavior, it is necessary to conduct cognitive studies on populations of free-living and feral dogs who haven't been around humans much if at all. However, these studies are extremely difficult to do because many of these dogs actively avoid humans like the plague and it would be difficult if not impossible to get them to sit still enough to partake in any sort of controlled setting. Nonetheless, these research projects will provide the data that are needed to assess sweeping generalizations about the behavior of "the dog."

As they try to demystify dogs and get us to think out of the box, Dr. Udell and her colleagues support viewing the dog as "a biological object with psychological properties." I really don't know what this means, but surely, dogs are not objects, and no object I know has psychological properties. Dogs clearly are highly sentient and deeply thinking beings. Indeed, that dogs have these traits is implicit throughout their essay and all others. 

Dogs really do make messes and they provide valuable lessons for inquisitive minds 

I'm not an expert on experimental studies of dog cognition so my learning curve was vertical as I read the essays in this book. And, all of the essays in this book tweaked my interest and forced me to admit that dogs do make messes (not only pee and poop). However, they are good messes in that they force us to come to terms not only with the fascinating lives of dogs but also how science is done and how results are interpreted, explained, and criticized. Open and constructive debate is essential in the business of science and this aspect of the book is most welcomed and much needed. I'll let the experts have at it as additional research is conducted and presented in scientific journals and at scientific meetings. Informed and friendly discussions will surely advance this field of study as it has others. 

This book is actually a fair deal in the expanding market of pricey books

Let's get back to the price of this priceless book for a moment. It is too expensive for most people to purchase and this is regrettable. However, I'll stick to what I previously wrote that in terms of the amount of information per page and per dollar it's one of the fairest deals I know of in a market where books are getting more and more expensive. It really is that good.

So, if you can't afford to buy a copy and mark it up on your own, share a copy and a technicolor collage of highlighting and stickems will surely make returning to it more enjoyable. And, I know you will return many times. My brain was full after the first read and I know there's much more to learn. 

 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014. 

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

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