What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Cover of Gregory Berns's book What It's Like to Be a DogI’ve had a serious crush on Dr. Gregory Berns ever since he published his first MRI studies. Those showed that dogs’ brains’ pleasure centers light up when they catch the whiff of a beloved human (or dog). There’s so much to love about his papers and his book How Dogs Love Us. So I was really excited about reading his newer book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

It’s well worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But … it wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s some really cool stuff, like the explanation of how dogs’ brains look when they’re doing the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test. I’ve played around with that a bit with Koala and Alberta, though I lack access to an MRI machine. So I was very interested in his findings. It turns out that some dogs do well with deferred gratification and others … not so much. You might notice that I haven’t talked about doing a marshmallow test with Cali. I don’t need a fancy machine to tell me that she lacks impulse control.

I was a little disappointed with some of the detours from living dogs’ brains into the long-ish discussions of the brains of deceased seals and Tasmanians. And I was distressed by the chapter on dogs and language.

I know that any sentence that pairs non-human animals with language raises the hackles of many people, scientists and non-scientists alike. I also think that there are many, many definitions of language and that dogs, particularly those with close human connections, understand a lot of what we say and do and they communicate with us in sophisticated ways. Lack of understanding of their “language” does not diminish its value. I get irritated when people choose a very narrow, very human-centered definition of language, such as one that is focused on semantics and grammar and written representation of a language, and then say, ‘see, only humans do this so only humans have language.’

Dogs communicate. They use their whole bodies — ears, tails, hackles, eyes, facial expressions, as well as scent and sound, to communicate. And dogs excel at reading the nonverbal communication of other dogs, humans, and often of other animals like cats. Other non-humans do this as well. Dogs are able to read humans far better than humans can read humans.

And dogs understand a lot of what we say to them. They might be assigning meaning to a combination of words and body language cues to understand our feelings, our desires, our mood rather than attaching the specific meanings that we do to individual objects or concepts. While I don’t expect Cali to speak to me in English or read the newspaper, much of the communication that I have with Cali — and especially what I had with Jana — is clear and meaningful.

Berns’s discussion of language, how he tested dogs’ understanding of words, and his interpretation of those results are very, very human-centric. He talks about the mirror test, which I believe is not a fair test for dogs. His comments on dogs’ lack of a sense of self or others: “My beloved Callie probably didn’t have abstract representations of me or my wife or my children. No, I was just that guy who feeds me hot dogs …” are off-base.

Dogs’ sense of self and others is primarily rooted in scent, not sight or sound. Berns himself showed that dogs recognize the scent of family members and respond differently than to the scent of unfamiliar humans or dogs. So I was mystified and saddened by what felt like a dismissal of the individuality of dogs’ selves and their relationships with key humans (or non-humans).

Despite a few disappointing chapters, I do recommend the book. I the insights into how dogs’ brains work are fascinating, and even where I disagree with Berns’s conclusions, I enjoy learning about his research and his understanding of dogs. Dr. Berns is still my favorite neuroscience researcher, and he’s a great writer. Check out both of his books if you haven’t already!

 

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Guide Dog Haiku

Deni Elliott learns to work with Guiding Eyes Alberta, who is now retired.

Several Guiding Eyes dogs’ human partners recently posted haiku and other poetry to a graduates’ email list. The poems show their appreciation and love for their guides. A member of the list asked (and received) permission to share some of the poems, which appear below. Feel free to add, in the comments section, your own service- guide- or pet-dog haikus, odes, ballads … or tributes in any literary form.

Naughty puppy face
Harness on, working face on!
What to do without?

Night comes, harness off
Naughty puppy face once more
We dream together.

 

The trees and sky breathe
My golden girl goes forward
Our hearts together

 

My vision as wide
As a dog can see, hear, smell
Guiding Eyes radar

 

Walking by my side
You safely show me the way
Teamwork every day

 

Our talks as we walk
Open volumes clearly spoken
Unheard by strangers

 

They don’t know our language
We speak silently yet so loudly
RIGHT!  LEFT!  STOP!  I LOVE YOU!

A movement, a language, a laugh
in voices so clear to us
So invisible, so silent to strangers
Roxanne, I hear you

You speak more loudly
“You do, too, when you smile at me.”
I smile back
A wag of  tail
A snort and shake of collar
A lean against your leg
A huff, a snort.
I smile back

Strangers never know
We laugh out loud at them
Out loud but silently
Our talks when we travel
Volumes never heard so clearly spoken
So secret, so open

 

The partnership and communication between guides and their humans is unusual, but service-dog partners and working-dog partners often experience  a comparable connection. True communication develops best in relationships where both partners’ roles are recognized and each acknowledges the necessity and the significance of the other’s contribution. This idea goes to the heart of the Thinking Dog Blog and my reasons for writing it, which is why I wanted to share these heartfelt tributes to guide dogs, both working and retired.

Where’s Cali?

Cali hides in tall grass

Cali has started a new game. When she doesn’t want to leave someplace (Jacob’s Island Bark Park in Missoula, for example), she hides. She’s really good at hiding, too. See if you can spot her in the photos.

I could get angry with her, say she’s misbehaving, that she’s a willful adolescent. I could also admire her intelligence, strategizing, and ability to read my intentions.

It takes a lot of thought and awareness to hide. Her ability to do so shows that she can think about what I can see and figure out where she can go that I won’t be able to see her. She can anticipate going home, decide that that’s not what she wants, and come up with a way to foil my intentions. She can plan and decide not to respond when I call her, and she understands that she has to be very still so I don’t see or hear her moving.

Cali hides deep in some thick bushes

She has to get the timing right, too. She wants to avoid going home, but it would be self-defeating to hide while I was still willing to play ball with her. So she has to read my body language carefully, in addition to parsing the verbal cues I give her. Finally, she also has to know when to resurface so as not to be abandoned (this would not happen, but how can she be sure of that?) or really get me angry.

A few days ago, she hid at the dog park. I might’ve very foolishly muttered something like “we need to get going” before throwing her ball. She took the ball, ducked under a branch, and disappeared. I called her. Nothing. I waited for about 10 minutes, then called some more. Nothing. I was pissed off. I had seen where she entered the bushes, and I went in after her. She was happy as can be, under some bushes with her ball. I grabbed the ball. That got her attention. We walked back to the car with me giving her an earful about what a terrible dog she was, bad to the bone. She laughed.

Then, the next day, she hid in a friend’s garden. I left her there (with the friend) and figured she’d have a nice afternoon in the grass, playing with dog and human friends. She did, but my friend reported that Cali cried when she realized that I had left. She recovered pretty quickly, though, and had fun; my friend also reported that Cali had a fence-fight with the next-door-neighbor-dog — which Cali instigated. But that’s a problem for another blog post.

I’m not really sure what to do about this new trick. I could just not take her to the dog park, but that’s a terrible solution. I don’t think that telling her to “come out right now or we won’t come back tomorrow” would work. She’s smart, but that is probably too abstract and verbose for her. I could punish her when I find her, but that would only motivate her to do a better job of hiding. I could keep her on a long leash, and risk getting it tangled in trees, picnic tables, other dogs …

She hides with her beloved tennis ball, and when she has her ball, she’s not interested in treats, so stooping to bribery is out. I could just wait her out, but I am not sure that my laptop battery would outlast her, and I do need to work.

Deni suggested letting Cali keep her tennis ball with her when we leave the park so that she’s not worried about losing it. In the apartment, all the time. Ick. Cali loves her tennis ball so much. She is happiest when it is really dirty, so she gets is all drooly and wet, then rolls it in dirt. Sometimes she digs a special pit just to make sure it gets totally covered in really fresh, dirty dirt. I’ve generally not allowed her to have the ball inside. If I get desperate enough, maybe …

Anyone have a better idea?

Being a Dog

Alexandra Horowitz’s new book, Being a Dog, is as much about being — and sniffing as — a human as it is about dogs and their world of smells. Horowitz does a great job breaking down the science of how dogs smell and how humans do (or, rather, fail to). I finally understand how different the dog’ s sense of the world is, in a way that superficial comparisons of the number of smell receptor cells dogs and humans have never could convey.

Dogs process and understand smell in a completely different way from humans. Smell is an entire language. Sniffing stuff on a walk is like reading an entire encyclopedia. Horowitz says that dogs don’t judge smells the way we do either. Smells are information; neither good nor bad. That explains a lot!

A couple of weeks ago, I described “smell walks” but I wasn’t sure exactly how these were supposed to work. Jana will be devastated to learn that not all walks need to be smell walks, but she will be delighted with the news that she deserves frequent smell walks. She sort of gets them already: The rules are that the dog gets to decide what direction to head, when to change direction, when to stop, and when to continue moving. If you and the dog never make it down the front steps, so be it. Luckily, we don’t have front steps.

I’d guess that it’s best to smell-walk one dog at a time, though Cali seems pretty happy with letting Jana choose smell sites. One must not head out on a smell walk when one is pressed for time. Especially if one is walking Jana; her smell walks could easily last from breakfast until dinner, especially if one remembered to bring refreshments for along the way.

There’s a lot more to the book than smell walks, though. There’s a lot of science, much of it having nothing to do with dogs but lots to do with smells. There are some great chapters on working dogs that barely scratch the surface of what career options are out there for dogs with working noses. There’s also a description of Horowitz’s experience taking her dog to a nosework class. He, like Jana, was a natural. But her descriptions of some of the other class members, nose-impaired and inhibited, were very sad.

Nosework classes are a dog’s idea of heaven on earth. The dog is in charge. The human cannot tell her “no” or hold her back. She gets to climb on things and under things and stick her nose anywhere she wants to. She can bark as much as she wants. And the reward for finding something smelly is a ton of treats. Not hard to figure out why Jana loved it. Cali would, too. She deserves a smell class of her own, come to think of it.

The book is definitely worth a read. Horowitz’s last book, Inside of a Dog, was billed as offering insight into how dogs experience the world. But I think that Being a Dog does a much better job of that. Scent is what defines the dog’s world; as much as most humans rely on what they see to understand the world, dogs turn to scent. Gaining a better understanding of what that means is the best way to try to understand dogs. When you’re done, sign your dog up for a nosework class. Maybe Cali and I will see you there!

Mind Your Manners

Wylie, a polite dog?Wylie hates peanut butter. It literally makes him gag. That’s why this story, from several years ago, is still one of my favorites: It tells me something really cool about dogs.

When Wylie was about to retire as a guide dog, his best friend t work brought him cookies. Very special gourmet dog cookies. One problem: They were peanut-butter cookies. Deni graciously thanked her colleague and said gently that she wasn’t sure Wylie would like them; he was fussy. The friend said, let’s see. He offered Wylie a cookie. Wylie accepted the cookie with appropriate doggy gratitude and ate it. The friend went happily on his way, feeling good that his gift had been accepted and enjoyed.

Surprised, Deni offered Wylie another cookie. He gave her what she can only describe as a disgusted “Are you nuts? I don’t eat that garbage” look, turned, and walked away. He never ate another one of those cookies.

Was Wylie “just being polite,” telling one of those little “white” lies we all tell when we want to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Can a dog do that?

Here’s a different way to think about it, though, really, we’ll arrive at the same conclusion: Dogs are very empathetic. They excel at reading and responding to our emotions. Many dog people have stories of dogs offering comfort when they were sad; getting excited when were excited; responding in a way that many people regard as “guilty” when we are angry. In truth, the dogs are more likely to be trying to appease a person they perceive as angry, but they are accurately reading the person’s emotion.

If Wylie got excited about the cookies, he could be said to be mirroring the friend’s emotion: The guy was presenting a gift that he had selected with Wylie in mind, and he was happy to see Wylie get the gift and enjoy it. Or the friend was sad to be saying good-bye. But Wylie didn’t get excited or offer comfort. He offered a gracious and appropriate, but not overly happy, response. (I don’t think Wylie is capable of phoniness.) And he clearly rejected the gift as soon as his buddy left the room.

My explanation is that Wylie was reading the situation clearly and accurately. He’d been around lots of people in lots of social situations, and he knew these two people really well. He behaved as he’d learned was appropriate. He wasn’t, I don’t think, consciously deciding to lie — any more than we consciously decide to lie each and every time we say something that will make someone feel good — or, to more clearly match this situation, every time we say or do something that is nice and socially expected rather than blurt out our first or most honest thought.

Jana, who really has no use for children of any species, is perfectly gracious and polite when being “enthusiastically petted” (she’d say “mauled”) by a child, but she gives me that look that says loud and clear: “Get me out of here, now, please.” And Alberta would dutifully “say hello” to people she and Deni met, but she really didn’t want to; and she expected a cookie as a reward afterward.

So, I would argue, that dogs read social situations and respond appropriately. What is “appropriate” in a given situation varies widely, and it is learned, not instinctive. Some dogs, and some humans, learn better than others. Some dogs do this well with dogs and poorly with humans, or the reverse. Wylie’s social instincts with other dogs were often less astute than his social instincts in this particular human instance.

So, while I’m not arguing that dogs adopt human social manners, I would say that they learn, over time with the same people, what those people think is acceptable. Much about dog-human relationships entails dogs trying to do what they think their human wants; it’s not surprising that this can get nuanced or that Wylie and Jana are good at it.

An Idea Whose Time Is Up

A recent Freakonomics podcast featured various politicians talking about one idea about elections that they wish would die, go away, never be mentioned again. I like that idea because I have a long list of absurd ideas about dogs and other nonhumans that I wish would go away and die a miserable, lonely death.

High up on that list is one that is getting a lot of attention these days, due to the unfortunate publication of a new book by novelist Tom Wolfe: the idea that only humans use language. Though I am one of the few people I know who disliked Bonfire of the Vanities, I had some professional respect for Wolfe as a writer until I heard his interview on NPR about his new book.

Wolfe essentially suggests that if evolution occurs, it only happens to nonhumans. That’s bad enough. But what really got my blood boiling were his comments on language. In the interview, Wolfe made the absurd claim that no evidence of anything resembling a language has ever been seen in a nonhuman. Wow. He really should have done some very basic research, like a cursory Google search, before deciding that. There’s a lot of research out there on animals and language.

Wolfe uses “speech” and “language” interchangeably, which is already a clear indication he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Many languages exist that are not based on speech, the most obvious being American (or any other) Sign Language. Thousands of nonverbal people understand and use language; some even write beautifully. Many actual scientists, even some who believe that only humans use language, have published extensive research on language and how it is separate from and does not require speech.

Wolfe also claimed that speech / language is necessary for any sort of memory or planning. Hmm, how does he explain insects, birds, mammals who store food for the winter (and remember where they put it); any critter who finds his way home once he leaves the den, ever, or who leads his pack back to the marvelous carcass or other food source he’s discovered? Even bees remember and guide others to food sources they’ve found. Memory. Memory, communication, teaching … And wouldn’t pack hunting, as wolves do, require planning? Building a nest or den requires both planning and memory. There’s a lot of research on these topics, too.But t

But really. Let’s focus on dogs for a moment. To establish that these nonhumans use language, remember, and plan, all you really need to do is spend a few days with a dog. Watch a dog come up with really clever plans for appropriating a coveted bone or toy from his sibling, or walk a dog who remembers where that lovely dead thing she rolled in last week was, or see how excited the dog gets when she recognizes the drive to the dog beach?

I could list, literally, thousands of examples from my own experience, reading, research, and students’ and friends’ stories. So could anyone who has ever paid much attention to dogs, elephants, chimps, whales, prairie dogs, birds, or any of the many other nonhumans who use language. Memory is essential to learning anything; and it is clear that millions of critters, but especially, and most near and dear to my heart, dogs, learn, remember, plan, use tools, problem-solve, and manipulate humans.

book cover of Beyond Words by Carl Safina My favorite comment on the interview came from an NPR listener who wrote that “It was the equivalent of interviewing an expert on evolutionary biology who never reads novels to get his opinions about how novelists can write better stories.” Yup. Stick to what you know: make-believe. Another good response is this column about why it matters when a famous writer dismisses evolution.

If you want to learn about language, read Chasing Doctor Doolittle or Beyond Words, both beautiful books about what language is and how various nonhumans use it. I’ve written several posts on this blog that address human communication with dogs and dogs’ ability to learn to understand human language. (I’ve never claimed that dogs have speech, and I do know the difference.) You can find those by searching this blog site.

 

How much is that in dog money?

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I had house-guests recently, and the girls put their entrepreneurial spirits to work. As I have described in other posts, the girls bring me my shoes when it’s time for a walk. They also bring their bowls when they are done eating. For each of these, as well as for getting the paper and for other tasks, they are paid in cookies.

There’s a cookie hierarchy in dogdom and therefore in our home. When requiring the girls to do something they dislike, such as submit to ear-cleaning or nail-trimming, I reward them (some would say bribe, but it happens after the fact) with high-value treats — freeze-dried liver, perhaps, or the dried beef patties we discovered at Costco. When we are practicing recall (come here, right NOW!) they get very high-value treats. We have special tooth-brushing cookies, which are of medium value. Ordinary chores like bringing the paper, shoes, etc. get ordinary treats — a few Charlee Bears or a small biscuit. This, it seems, is the currency of the dog world. They expect to be paid, and, so far, they have been willing to accept the prices I am willing to pay.

They showed a basic understanding of economics when they started bringing things I hadn’t asked for and expecting payment. It reminded me a bit of those kids who used to come out of nowhere and wash your car windshield while you were sitting at a red light, then ask for money. But the girls are cuter and very earnest.

Then my guests came along. One was so enchanted by the dogs bringing shoes — random shoes, no less, maybe taking my shoes to her or a single sandal when she needed her boots — that she inflated the payout. At least once, but I suspect more, she gave Cali a beef patty — a whole one! — and Cali had not even brought her the right shoes! I don’t even want to know what she paid for the girls’ dinner bowls.

Well. Jana and Cali don’t have MBAs, but they don’t need them. The girls quickly understood inflation and supply-and-demand economics. And bargaining: I’ll give you this shoe — and a boot — for one of those beef patties. I’ll throw in a phone or a TV remote if you’ll give me two. What? A measly Charlee Bear? I am going to hang on to this slipper. When your foot is cold, you’ll pay more.

Just what I need. A looming winter of cold feet and fat dogs. I’d better go to Costco this week. We’re gonna need more beef patties.