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The Science of Thinking and Feeling Like a Dog

Science writer Jules Howard's new book shows what we really know about dogs.

It seems like once a week I get a notice about new "dog' books" that vary in size, shape, and quality. Some are tersely scientific, some are a mix of science and easy-to-read-writing, some continue to uncritically perpetuate unfounded myths that have become memes for those interested in portraying dogs as the animals they really aren't, and some are about a single dog.1 Needless to say, there is a wide range in how available information is analyzed and summarized and in the quality of writing. Often, readily available data aren't included.

I just had the good fortune to read a first-class book by science writer and broadcaster Jules Howard that has been published in the UK called Wonderdog: How the Science of Dogs Changed the Science of Life. I found it to be an excellent, careful, and critical summary of research bearing on a wide variety of questions including, "What do dogs really think of us? What do dogs know and understand of the world? Do their emotions feel like our own? and Do they love like we do?"2

Jules also includes a valuable historical perspective about various research interests and some of the many people who have studied and written about these wonderful animal beings, including Charles Darwin and Charles Turner.3 He also calls for more compassion in science. Dogs have been exposed to extremely inhumane research and one can seriously question how useful the data truly are.

Why should you read this book?

There are a good number of reasons why I argue that Wonderdog should be on your list of must-reads. Jules writes well and successfully tells readers about the solid science behind dog behavior in general along with what we know about their cognitive and emotional lives. He takes a strongly ethological perspective pondering why certain behavior patterns have evolved—what they're good for—and why they have been retained in the behavioral repertoire of dogs. He also carefully explains how science is done, reflects on the personalities of some of the people doing the research (including many I know or have known, including Erik Zimen and Donald Griffin), and how this can inform the methods they use and the questions they ask.4

Two important aspects of the way in which Jules covers research center on (1) what the results of various studies really mean and why they differ and (2) replicability. This is not a criticism of different research projects but rather the realization that the way in which studies of the same or similar questions are done and a dog's mood can influence the results of a project. Along these lines, Jules notes, "the very methods used to study dogs' minds were influencing the insights reflected back."5

 Viktoria Slowikowska, Pexels
Source: Viktoria Slowikowska, Pexels

Concerning Jules' critical eye about what different research means, in covering my own "yellow snow" study that set the way for further and more detailed work, he rightly notes the limitation that I only studied one dog, but that it got other researchers interested in expanding our knowledge of how dogs and other animals might have some sense of self-awareness that is based on olfactory rather than visual cues such as their self-reflection in a mirror. Just because dogs and other animals don't respond to their own mirror images as do other animals in studies of self-awareness, does not mean they don't have some sense of self, and it is misleading to claim they don't based solely on mirror tests.

Self-awareness is a "hot" topic in studies of animal cognition and we need to know more about diverse species who rely on senses other than vision to discriminate between themselves and others.

Science in practice: What is it like to be a dog?

I could go on and on about the value of reading and studying Wonderdog and I hope my brief review shows that it is a very rich and thoughtful book that is well-worth reading. Jules' coverage of topics with which I'm most familiar, including play, is excellent.

There also is an important practical side to Wonderdog because when we understand what it is like to be a dog, we can use this information to inform us about what they need from us when they're simply hanging in our company—they need love and respect—when they're walking and trying to read pee-mail and decipher and understand messages that other dogs have left behind or are sending out—or when they're meeting and greeting other dogs and humans—groin- and butt-sniffing are entirely dog appropriate no matter what we think about them.

I share Jules' unbridled enthusiasm about the importance of compassionate and noninvasive research not only to learn more about dogs but also to pay tribute to their rich and deep cognitive and emotional lives. Non-invasive research can produce more meaningful data, and it's good there is an increasing amount of ethological research being done on free-ranging dogs.

I find myself continually going back to various sections of Wonderdog to see what Jules had to say about the people who have studied dogs and those who are currently trying to figure out what makes dogs tick, the research itself, and what it all means in learning about these most amazing and fascinating beings.

References

1) For a discussion of numerous myths, including that dogs aren't really our best friends or unconditional lovers, click here.

2) The retitled book Wonderdog: The Science of Dogs and Their Unique Relationship with Humans will be published in the United States in November 2022, and a full description of the book can be seen here. The Kindle version is available now on UK sites.

3) Charles Turner wrote more than 70 papers about animal learning about which Jules writes, "...his impact on early animal intelligence studies has been almost completely overlooked, in large part because of insurmountable barriers caused by his African-American ethnicity." (p. 68).

4) One notable absence is the seminal work of Dr. Michael W. Fox, summarized in numerous research papers, in Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs and Related Canids, and in other books. Another is concerned with the process of domestication. Because dogs are among the animals I know best, I was hoping to read about the work of Mark Derr and other researchers—"Dumping the Dog Domestication Dump Theory Once and For All" and "The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved."

5) One area in which data seem to go all over the place centers on questions of how (and if) dogs and wolves vary in their ability to follow human gazing and pointing. Sweeping generalizations such as dogs follow gazing and pointing whereas wolves don't aren't true; it depends on a number of factors including how the dogs and wolves were reared, their age, and the tasks at hand. In some studies, variations in data can be influenced by the mood of the dogs when they were used.

"What Do All These Dog Studies Really Mean?"

Dogs: When They Smell Their Pee They Know It's "Me".

Hidden tales of yellow snow: What a dog's nose knows - Making sense of scents.

Do Animals Know Who they Are?

It's Time to Imagine a Walk on Your Dog's Terms.

It’s Best Not to Judge Dogs by Their Covers.

Are Pet Dogs Really Better Off Than Free-Range Canines?

Why It's Important (and Fun) to Study Free-Running Dogs.

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