Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Magic Tricks, Consciousness, and Mental Imagery in Dogs

A magic trick suggests that dogs have mental imagery.

One of the easiest ways to start a debate in any behavioral science department is to stand out in the hallway and announce that dogs have consciousness of a sort that is similar to that enjoyed by humans. Obviously we are referring to more than the everyday distinction that an animal that is awake has conscious awareness as compared with when he is asleep or in a coma. Philosophers and psychologists argue continually amongst themselves about what we mean beyond simple awareness. For some, just being able to perceive the world, process information about it, and lay down memories of what we have sensed is enough. Thus the Oxford philosopher, Michael Lockwood says that "consciousness is the leading edge of perceptual memory."

Most behavioral scientists, however, believe that one clearly required bit of evidence of consciousness includes having a picture of the world that goes beyond our immediate sensory impressions, such as knowing that objects still exist whether we can still see them right at this moment or not. In simple terms, I know that my wife still exists even though she has walked out of the room and I can’t see her at the moment, and I also know that my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley, exists even though he has slipped under my desk for a nap and is no longer visible. To know that an object’s existence does not depend on our ability to sense it at the moment was labeled object permanence by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. He demonstrated that this is not an ability that we are born with. This is easily demonstrated by taking a young child, a year or so of age, and showing him a toy that he really wants. Naturally he will reach for it. Now while he is watching the toy we slip a sheet of typing paper in front of him so that the piece of paper now blocks his view of the toy. Under these circumstances the child will not try to reach past or around the paper, but rather acts like the toy no longer exists, perhaps looking around blankly, or crying because it is gone. In very early childhood, even a child’s parent is simply another object that passes in and out of existence as it appears and disappears from view. This would explain why babies seem to get so much pleasure from games of "peek-a-boo". Somewhere around a year and a half to two years of age the child will develop object permanence will understand that the toy is still there, just out of sight. He will prove this by trying to look or reach behind the paper barrier, or tying to move it to get the toy. Piaget would say that the child is now demonstrating mental imagery and has formed a mental representation of the object and a mental map of the world. The child then brings this picture of the world into consciousness and it tells him that the object still exists and it gives its location. I do not think that Piaget is suggesting that before the development of object permanence children have no consciousness, but rather that when they do develop this aspect of thinking their consciousness has risen to a higher level and now can be used for more complex forms of thinking and problem solving.

Even without going into the laboratory to verify the fact, it should be apparent that dogs have object permanence. Obviously, if the wild ancestors of dogs believed that a rabbit or any other quarry ceased to exist simply because it was no longer visible after it ran behind a rock or around a bend in a path, they would have long ago died of starvation. We have all seen a dog excitedly trying to recover a ball that has rolled behind a sofa or another piece of furniture and is now out of sight. Furthermore, every good retriever can see two birds shot from the sky which then fall out of sight in the high grass, and still know that both exist since he will confidently move in direct lines to fetch them back to its master.

Formal laboratory testing of object permanence in dogs has been done by psychologists Sylvain Gagnon and François Doré of Laval University in Quebec, Canada. They found that this psychological ability appears much more quickly in dogs than in humans. In puppies of only 5 weeks of age there is already a basic understanding of object permanence. By the age of 8 weeks it is quite as reliably present as the object permanence seen in an 18 month old human child.

dog canine pet human animal bond consciousness thinking Imagery thought

There is setting where it is very easy to demonstrate that mental imagery is a part of object permanence without laboratory testing. That is when watching the performance of magic tricks. Suppose a magician shows you a coin in one hand, closes both of his hands and then asks you to find the coin. Your astonishment and amazement results from the fact that when he now reveals that not only the hand that you thought the coin was in is now empty, but the other hand is empty as well comes from the violation of your conscious imagery of the situation and your expectations based upon object permanence. Suppose we could show that dogs, when presented with sleight-of-hand forms of magic, show the same puzzlement when their notions of object permanence are shown to be wrong as do people. Wouldn't this provide a simple bit of evidence confirming mental imagery and some level of consciousness in dogs? In the video that follows, magician Jose Ahonen shows a number of different dogs a simple magic trick in which he has a dog treat, and it’s suddenly gone! Even without words, you can easily see from the dogs' body language what they must be thinking. "What's happened here?" "Where did it go?" "This is strange!" If the dogs had no mental imagery of the object and no mental map of its location in consciousness then they would have no cause for surprise or puzzlement. Look at the video, and decide for yourself. I certainly find the dogs' responses quite convincing.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

 Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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