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Going To The Dogs Is A Good Idea: It's Not A Dog Eat Dog World

Dogs are more than we give them credit for

Animals are "in" these days and our companion dogs are among the most popular animal beings with whom many of us have close contact. In about 40% of households in the United States there's at least one of 75 million companion dogs (excluding those in shelters) and of the 88 million companion cats in the United States at least one is found in about 34% of households. Dogs are like family to most people and more than 75% of children in the United States live with companion animals and are more likely to grow up with a nonhuman companion than with both parents. American boys are more likely to care for their companion animals than for older relatives or younger siblings. In a recent Psychology Today blog Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog, explains why we treat dogs better then we treat their wild relatives, wolves, from whom they evolved.

Here I just want to alert readers to some current ideas about the use of dogs in cognitive research and some recent discoveries based on an essay titled "Going to the Dogs" by Virginia Morell in the prestigious professional journal Science (28 August 2009). Dogs have had a rocky reputation in research depending on the nature of the study. Over the years millions have been used and severely abused in a wide variety of invasive biomedical and psychological experiments but when it comes to behavioral research researchers have had varied opinions about whether or not dogs are good subjects. I was told years ago that studying social play behavior in dogs was a waste of time not only because we could never get a handle on what play is and why animals love to do it but also because play in dogs isn't like play in other animals because dogs aren't real animals. I decided these skeptics were totally wrong and after about 35 years of research I have clearly shown that this was a ridiculous worry (Animals at Play and Wiid Justice), as have many of my colleagues (The Genesis of Animal Play and The Playful Brain).

The tide is changing and most scientists see the value in studying our best friends with whom we've had a long association as we domesticated them to be who we want them to be. The summary from "Going to the Dogs" reads as follows:

"Dogs are fast becoming the it animal for evolutionary cognition research. Our canine pals, researchers say, are excellent subjects for studying the building blocks underlying mental abilities, particularly those involving social cognition. Their special relationship with humans is also seen as worthy of study in its own right; some researchers see Canis familiaris as a case of convergent evolution with humans because we share some similar behavioral traits. And because all dogs are descended from gray wolves (C. lupus), they can reveal how domestication has altered a species' mental processes, enabling the dog to survive in its new habitat, the human home. Some researchers even think that dogs may teach us more about the evolution of some aspects of our social mind than can our closest kin, the chimpanzee, because Fido is so adept at reading and responding to human communication cues. But not everyone agrees, arguing that the skills dogs share with humans are a matter of learning rather than evolutionary change."

The essay in Science also shows that there's a lot of interest in how the mind of the dog develops similarly to the mind of humans but I don't find the arguments as yet all that compelling. We should appreciate dogs for who they are whether or not they're like us

It's also really interesting that dogs do things that wolves can't, even wolves who are raised with humans. Research in Adam Miklósi’s laboratory in Budapest, Hungary has shown that 4-month-old puppies in a choice test always preferred a human companion to a dog, whereas young wolves showed no preference. Much of what is currently known about the cognitive abilities of dogs and wolves is reviewed in a recent article in the peer-reviewed online journal PloS ONE:

"In sum, in dogs the necessary social skills for utilizing human pointing signals or the preparedness for their rapid development have been selected for in the domestication process. For wolves, a compensating developmental route might enable the establishment of the behavioural basis of successful communication and cooperation with humans in some tasks. Wolves, however, react to a lesser degree to socialisation in contrast to dogs, which are able to display control of agonistic behaviours and inhibition of actions in a food related task early in development. The synergistic hypothesis suggests that the dog-wolf difference in the sensitivity for human gestural cues emerges both at the evolutionary and developmental level. Further studies are needed to investigate whether this can be interpreted in the phenotype as a developmental change in the timing (heterochrony) of some social skills in dogs."

As I've pointed out elsewhere, wolves are not domesticated animals, even those with whom we share our homes or can interact. They are socialized individuals but they have not undergone domestication. A domesticated wolf is a dog!

I talked about the Science essay and dogs in general with my colleague dog expert Mark Derr, author of two wonderful books on dogs (A Dog's History of America and Dog's Best Friend) and he agrees that we need to be careful about comparing dogs to young children because each occupies a different perceptual world from our own which is one reason they are so helpful to us.

Mark and I also question the conclusion of well-known dog researcher Michael Tomasello. Based on his reading of dog research that has been conducted in highly controlled situations in various laboratories, he claimed "Dogs are collaborating with us; they aren’t doing this with other dogs." I've seen dogs collaborate with others at dog parks and other locales where they can run free and collaboration and cooperation are the very reasons why dogs (and other animals) are able to play with one another. I'm sure many of you have also seen examples of collaboration and cooperation. While laboratory studies are very important in learning about dog cognition we also need to pay attention to what they do when dogs are free to run with their canine buddies and how they share information about what they know, want, and feel. Dogs are highly social so when people lament that "it's a dog eat dog world" this is totally misleading because dogs don't eat other dogs.

What's so exciting is that there is so much to learn about our companion dogs and it can be done in noninvasive experiments and also while they're having fun on the run with their friends. Research data and good anecdotes are all needed to increase our knowledge about what dogs and other animals are able to do and what they know and feel. We need to keep the door open on how smart and adaptable they are and also how domestication has played a role in defining who they are and who we are.

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