Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

Beyond WordsI’ve read a lot of academic studies of dogs and other non-humans that seemed silly, but I somehow missed this one, described by Carl Safina in Beyond Words. Safina pokes fun at a researcher who gathered and analyzed video of dogs playing for two years before reaching the somewhat obvious conclusion that when a dog wants to invite another dog to play, he behaves differently if the other dog is facing away from him: He tries to get that dog’s attention before offering a play bow. The dog either barks or uses his paw to attract the other dog’s attention. Dogs don’t play bow to other dogs’ rear ends. Amazing. (For more on this and what it can teach us, see Learning from Real Dogs.)

In ridiculing this and other studies, Safina makes the point that researchers should get out of the lab and watch how real animals interact with members of their own and other species. There is much to love in Beyond Words: The sections on elephants, wolves, and orcas are chock-full of detail, stories, and heartbreaking information about how badly humans screw things up when we don’t understand other species. I’ve written about his discussion of self-awareness and the mirror test. But my favorite section, naturally, had to do with dogs. He writes engagingly about his own dog when he takes on the controversial issue of whether dogs (or any non-humans) have “theory of mind.”

Safina offers several definitions for theory of mind drawn from real studies. My favorite is the one that claims that theory of mind is the ability “to read the minds of others.” Based on the divorce statistics and the number of wars and conflicts of all sorts, it seems that all humans would fail that test. A better definition is “knowing that another can have thoughts that differ from yours.”

Safina provides many, many examples of non-humans, including dogs, showing that they meet this definition; he calls the evidence “blinding” (his emphasis). Any time your dog anticipates your behavior — putting on those shoes means a walk — or asks for anything, like a belly rub, treat, or dinner, your dog is showing that he understands, or at least can make a plausible guess at, what you are thinking or planning and might even be able to influence your decision. Any time a dog fakes you out (or another dog) by playing keep-away with a toy or takes advantage of your inattention — barking while you are on the phone, for example — your dog is demonstrating his mastery of theory of mind.

Safina also takes on the definition of self-awareness, as well as other traits or abilities that some scientists, absurdly, continue to insist that only humans possess, skewering the human-centered irrelevance of the “tests” that purport to demonstrate other species’ lack of these abilities. A thorough discussion of humans’ penchant for believing things that we know not to be true versus non-humans’ evidence-based actions and beliefs leads to his conclusion that “maybe more than anything, what ‘makes us human’ is our ability to generate wacky ideas.”

 

What the Dog Knows

what the dog knows

Cadaver dog training? Don’t make the same mistake I made — I was put off by the topic of this book and didn’t read it when it first came out (or even when I first got my copy). Once I started reading it, though, I was hooked. I breezed through it in a few days. Author Cat Warren does a wonderful job of weaving the history and technique of training scent dogs, and in particular cadaver dogs, into her story of training Solo, a German shepherd.

Like most of the books I love and recommend highly, this on puts heavy emphasis on the relationship between handler and dog. Warren is brave; she reveals her mistakes and failures as both the guardian of a high-energy puppy and as a novice trainer. She even admits to feeling overwhelmed by the intense, high-energy, demanding adolescent dog who shares her life, home, and hobby. We readers gain tremendously from her bravery, as these admissions both increase our understanding of how difficult cadaver training is and help us learn from someone else’s very understandable gaffes.

The book is rich with portraits of top cadaver dog trainers and handlers and with detailed descriptions of the training and the work. In her honesty and detail, Warren even mentions a great taboo among scent dog people: false alerts. They do happen. Her discussion of this raised a question in my mind about how deliberate the dogs are. I don’t know (yet) whether any formal studies have been done, but I am intrigued about whether the dogs are actually lying (intentionally alerting to get a reward) or whether they are simply unsure or scenting something that might be the target and responding because it seems to be what the handler wants or because they truly think they have identified the target scent. Look for more on this topic in an upcoming post .

Meanwhile, if you have any interest in scent dog training or cadaver dog training — or merely in a great dog-and-person story — read this book.

 

Get Healthy, Get a Dog

I was excited when I read about Get Healthy, Get a Dog, a new report from the Harvard Medical School that describes the connections between life with a dog (or dogs) and better health. The article I read in Bark magazine was very enthusiastic, and I immediately purchased a copy of the report, a collaboration between Harvard Medical School and Angell Animal Medical Center (in Boston). A few days later, I settled in to read the whole 50-page document … and was deeply disappointed .

It’s not that the report contains anything negative. In fact, the first section is an excellent review of the many studies that have shown physical and emotional benefits of sharing life with a dog. It offers scientific support for what we all know: Dogs are great company, get people to exercise and take better care of themselves, and help people connect socially and feel less isolated. Great!

There’s a big problem with this part of the report, though: It lacks proper citation of the studies, and there is no list of references. The report does not offer enough information for readers to find the original studies. I expected more professional work from Harvard.

As a person with considerable expertise and experience in working with service dogs, I was especially disgusted by the section on service dogs. The definition provided for service dogs is wrong and misleading, and the authors confuse therapy dogs with service dogs, a common, but inexcusable, error.

I was especially looking forward to the section mentioned in the Bark article where dogs get their turn: Half the report is dedicated to describing what responsible dog ownership entails. Sadly, this portion of the report is very superficial. It reads more like the pet column of a newspaper than a carefully researched report. An example: After a thorough description of canine obesity (complete with the ubiquitous diagram), the authors suggest “limiting” treats to 10 percent of food intake, or “about seven medium-size dog biscuits” for a 70-lb. Labrador. Seven biscuits a day? Just for existing? Not in my house!! (To be fair, they do mention the possibility of using carrots or apple slices as treats and suggest putting the treats into a Kong so the dog has to “work” for them.)

There’s a lengthy section on exercising with your dog with heavy emphasis on exercising safely. As many dog owners do, I live in a moderate climate, so I found the inclusion of skijoring on the list of suggested activities a bit odd and the absence of activities like Rally, flyball, dock diving — and other dog sports that people have actually heard of — unfortunate.

The paper concludes with a short and not comprehensive list of dog resources, primarily a disjointed collection of dog-related organizations, and a brief glossary (which defines skijoring but not service dog). While such a list can never be exhaustive, it would be easy to prepare a better, more coherent list, as well as a list of the studies and books cited.

Save your $18 ($20 for a print copy); better yet, spend it on a subscription to Whole Dog Journal  or Bark. One issue of either of these outstanding dog magazines offers more, and more current, information than this second-rate report.

Note: A longer version of this blog post is published on Barks from the Guildthe blog of the Pet Professional Guild, where I am a monthly contributor. 

 

Animal Wise

Animal WiseI got a copy of Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise soon after it came out in paperback … then let it sit on my shelf for ages. I finally picked it up after hearing an NPR broadcast of a talk she gave in March 2015. She was wonderful! And so were her animal stories!

Animal Wise talks about many species of animals. She does save the best for last, though. The final chapter, on dogs and wolves, includes interviews with and visits to the labs of nearly all of my dog-cognition-research heroes (Adam Miklosi, Vilmos Csanyi, Jozsef TopolPeter Pongracz … she reveals why Hungary is the center of the dog cognition universe, too … but Juliane Kaminski, Julia Fischer and Brian Hare also get their due).

Morell does a fantastic job of grabbing readers’ interest with great storytelling. Who can resist reading about rats who laugh or ants who teach — and evaluate their students? I sure couldn’t.

She then describes the science behind these discoveries in laymen’s terms and explains why these discoveries matter. And best of all, her discussion of the research is not All About How Great It Is for Humans. In fact, her epilogue eloquently puts to rest (thank goodness) the idea that the only reason to study animal minds is to compare them unfavorably with humans’ minds and to keep on isolating the qualities that make humans superior. “Instead,” she writes, “given that we now know that we live in a world of sentient beings, not one of stimulus-response machines, we need to ask, how should we treat these other emotional, thinking creatures?”

While this is not light reading — heavy on the science — it’s well worth the effort and is, actually, a very friendly way to learn a lot about animal cognition science.

Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words

CHaserAmazing dog. Amazing and super-friendly author. I got in touch w/Dr. Pilley after reading the book (and his research papers) and he did a Skype conversation with a class I was teaching on dog-human communication. He is one in a million, as is Chaser. He is such a great example of positive training that respects a dog and her abilities… and he is a fantastic teacher as well.
No one is surprised to hear that a border collie is intelligent and learns easily. But Chaser has gone far beyond what any other dog has been documented to learn in terms of human language comprehension. Dr. Pilley set out to teach her as many words as he could — names of objects — after reading the dismissive comments that greeted publications describing the accomplishments of Rico, a border collie in Germany who learned several hundred words. Dr. Pilley analyzed the linguists’ and other academics’ critiques of the training and testing of Rico — and set out to train his dog in a way that addressed all of their objections. And he accomplished his goal. (An interesting chapter in the book describes the resistance he faced when attempting to publish his initial results.) The opposition to admitting that any creature but humans can use language is still deeply entrenched.
But it’s also dead wrong. Chaser truly does understand human language. She learned and retains the names of more than a thousand items. She has demonstrated her ability to categorize them, grouping round bouncy things into the “ball” category and flat flying things into the “Frisbee” category, for example. And, like most dogs, she clearly distinguishes the category of “my toys” from “things in the house that I’d like to chew but am not allowed to chew.”
But Dr. Pilley realized that he had not pushed the boundaries of Chaser’s abilities. So, they tackled grammar next. Chaser understands the concepts of subject, verb, object — and indirect object. As an editor and college instructor, I have to point out that many writers and college students do not reach Chaser’s level of grammatical knowledge.
Toward the end of the book, Dr. Pilley describes his initial attempts to teach Chaser to imitate long, complex strings of behaviors. His description inspired me to try simple imitation games with my dogs, which have been fun and very funny.
The best part about this book though, is its constant message: Keep training fun and rewarding for the dog; make it a game; play to your dog’s strengths and preferences and, most important, make sure she has time do play and engage in her favorite activities. For Chaser, that means regular opportunities to herd sheep at a near

Citizen Canine

Citizen Canine
Should dogs have legal rights?
The question is not as crazy as it might sound. In Citizen Canine, author David Grimm explores this and many other questions about the rights, responsibilities, and roles of pets in contemporary life. He examines the history of pet life in American society as well as the legal status of dogs, cats, and other nonhumans. Along the way, he introduces readers to some interesting and influential people in the areas of animal welfare, animal law, animal rescue, and more.
Grimm is clearly an advocate for better treatment of dogs and cats and is very open to new possibilities — from laws that better protect pets and the people who love them to a radically new status for dogs and cats. But the book presents a mix of viewpoints and does an excellent job of presenting the very real questions posed by granting “legal personhood” to animals. Who would represent the interests of dogs and cats without families? Could a pet owner be jailed for failing to provide medical care to a standard determined by … whom? Could dogs sue people? Could they have their own money? How would we contend with the likelihood that veterinary malpractice insurance and lawsuits would dramatically increase the cost of vet care? Who would have legal standing to represent a pet? How would we handle getting dogs’ and cats’ consent before breeding (or neutering) them?
His discussion with a leader of the American Veterinary Medical Association reveals the fierce opposition among vets to any change in dogs’ legal status — and the hypocrisy of vets who appeal to pet owners by acknowledging the role of their pets as family members, and who offer, even encourage those owners to purchase vet care that costs thousands of dollars — then insist that a dog’s or cat’s value cannot exceed replacement cost. Like a toaster.
What I like best about this book is the many possibilities and viewpoints it presents. Some of the people Grimm interviews present the “personhood” question as black and white: Dogs must either remain with their current status, as property, with no more rights or protections than a toaster; or they must be elevated to a status equivalent to that of humans. As with most issues presented as a stark choice between two equally poor options, though, the reality is much more complex. Many of the objections raised, for example, can be resolved by looking for parallels in the way that we protect children’s rights or the rights of adult humans who cannot make their own legal decisions.
The final chapter introduces an idea that merits a lot of thought and that could provide pets with a status that more closely reflects their true position in our society. For details, you’ll have to read the book.

How Dogs Love Us

howdogsloveus_260Gregory Berns got the crazy idea of training his dog to lie still in an MRI machine, in the hope it would provide some insight into dogs’ thinking. What he found brings scientific proof to something every dog person knows — that dogs read us, anticipate our behavior, and act on that knowledge. Dogs, in short, have theory of mind. Berns rightly argues that this scientific evidence must change the way we think of and treat dogs.

What’s especially wonderful about this story is that, at least at the beginning, Berns is not an especially savvy dog person. He loves his dogs, treats them extremely well, but hasn’t spent a lot of time trying to communicate effectively with them or train them. By the end of the book — or maybe by a few months into the research — he’s become convinced that dogs communicate and function on a very high level and that “the key to improving dog-human relationships is through social cognition, not behaviorism.” Quite a journey … in fact, it’s the same journey that I hope to push my students along in Bergin U classes on dog training, canine-human communication and understanding the dog’s perspective. (Any current Bergin U students reading this might as well order their copies now … this book is destined to become required reading in all my classes.)

The book is filled with fairly complex scientific concepts, but it is written beautifully and clearly. It is very easy to understand and, like a good adventure novel, pulls readers along with foreshadowing and suspense. I especially love the long discussion of the ethical issues Berns and his team faced in setting up the research and the insistence of all the human researchers that the dogs would always be free to opt out, at any time. I also love the dog-centric approach the research takes (read the book to find out what I mean!). This book — this whole research study —is a testament to the amazing possibilities that exist when humans acknowledge their dogs’ abilities, treat them as partners (rather than as property or as slaves), and engage with them in a respectful, positive manner.

Because I am nut for precise language, I do have to quibble with the title. Berns does not actually show HOW dogs love us. He does show, I believe, that they DO love their human family members. While he can’t really show us what dogs are thinking, though, he has shown a way to understand their likes and dislikes — and perhaps opened the door to a better ability to read in dogs other emotions that humans and dogs share.