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What Our New Dog Is Teaching Us About Life

Lesson 3: Anatomy isn't destiny.

Michelle Maria/Pixabay
Source: Michelle Maria/Pixabay

The computer software expression WYSIWYG ("What You See Is What You Get") may not be as familiar today as it was back decades ago when personal computers began to be both affordable and graphically more capable. If it is true, as I wrote in Lesson 2 , that dealing with the world based on the appearance of things—including different breeds of dogs—is a very human thing to do, then another way of saying this, more teasingly perhaps, would be WYSIWY– THINK –YG.

Source: John Terrell
Emma doesn't look happy here, and we have no idea why this might be so.
Source: John Terrell

It is not difficult to understand why dogs looking like our new pit bull named Emma might frighten people, especially give the notion prevalent today that such dogs down deep inside are vicious and can't be trusted. The American Pit Bull Terrier is sleek and powerfully muscled. Their heads are square and their jaws are impressive, to say the least. If we humans are predisposed to believe that WYS can be a reliable clue to WYG, and the dog in question is a pit bull, then jumping to the conclusion that Emma might be dangerous doesn't call for a lot of impressive human brain power.

If this is true, then what does it take to get beyond first impressions , and see a dog like Emma for what she is really like "down deep inside"? Moreover, is Emma just "another pit bull" like all others of her kind ? Are pit bulls as predictable in their behavior are they are similar in their looks? If so, is this because they have been "made to be" so predictable—so stereotyped in their behavior—by dog-breeders? Or might this simply be an unintended consequence of how they have been deliberately bred, say, for endurance, strength, and other sorts of physical rather than behavioral characteristics?

Is anatomy destiny?

Let's agree that skillful dog breeders can select through careful observation and controlled mating what a new dog will probably look like, anatomically speaking. They will also probably be able to determine what a dog will be capable of doing, physically speaking. But here's the question. What can they select for when they want to determine not only what a dog will be able to do, but also how it is likely to behave ?

Erin Hecht at Harvard and her colleagues argued recently that the brains of different breeds of dogs differ anatomically in observable ways. The opening paragraph of her scientific paper reads:

A major goal of modern neuroscience is to understand how variation in behavior, cognition, and emotion relates to underlying neural mechanisms. A massive “natural experiment” in this arena has been right under our noses: domestic dogs. Humans have selectively bred dogs for different, specialized abilities—herding or protecting livestock, hunting by sight or smell, guarding property, or providing companionship. Significant breed differences in temperament, trainability, and social behavior are readily appreciable by the casual observer, and have also been documented quantitatively. Furthermore, recent genetic research indicates that this behavioral variation is highly heritable.

Please note carefully what is being claimed here. Aren't the words "relates to" in the first sentence ambiguous? Yet, even so, the aim seems clear: "variation in behavior, cognition, and emotion relates to underlying neural mechanisms." Aren't we being asked to accept that behavior is somehow controlled by something called "neural mechanisms"? Furthermore, aren't we being asked to accept that these mechanisms are somehow behind—some would say they cause —the outwardly different "specialized abilities" of different breeds of dogs? Furthermore still, aren't we being asked to accept that these specialized abilities are genetically "highly heritable"?

All this strikes me as a lot of vague and even doubtful claims—some would label them as prior, or a priori , assumptions—to put on the table at the start of a science paper. I don't think I am being too cynical if I suggest that if you accept all these assertions, then there would almost seem to be no need to read the rest of what is said in this research paper.

The essential pit bull

As I have been saying, the American Pit Bull Terrier is widely held to be dangerous and unpredictable. However, as advocates for "pitties" on the internet like to point out, for these dogs to succeed in the ghastly bloodsport of dogfighting, they must be trained from birth to be vicious towards other dogs.

I want to emphasize this point. Being vicious is something they have to learn, not something they come by "naturally" because behaving this way is somehow "programmed" into the genes they have inherited from the dog and dam bred to give them life. In fact, even in the illegal sport of dogfighting , any pit bull exhibiting unprovoked aggression towards anyone human soon becomes a dead dog done in by human, not canine, means. As the journalist Malcolm Gladwell wrote in 2006 : "A pit bull is dangerous to people, then, not to the extent that it expresses its essential pit bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it."

This is good to know, but saying this begs the issue. When it comes to behavior rather than appearance, is there really something that can be called "essential pit bullness"?

This is not an easy question to resolve. In fact, the same question has long been asked about people, too , although when it comes to us, the question is usually phrased as one about whether there is some called "human nature."

I will explore the human side to this question in the last installment in this series about our dog Emma. For now, let me end this installment by putting into words what I see as the third lesson Emma is teaching us about life:

Just as appearances can be deceptive, so too, expectations can be misleading.

Lesson 4Be careful what you take for granted . To find the other lessons Emma has taught us, please go here .


Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, Karla J. Larson, Pat Shipman, and Lisa M. Stringer have contributed to this commentary.