Apologies to Jana

I owe Jana an apology.

I’m reading a wonderful book (go get it right now!), Beyond Words by Carl Safina. A review will be posted … once I finish the book. I’ve finished the sections on elephants, wolves, and, best of all, dogs. Orcas are up next.

He takes great delight in lampooning several ludicrous studies that purport to prove humans’ superiority in matters of self-awareness and “theory of mind.” In reading Safina’s analysis of the mirror test, I realized that I got it all wrong. His explanation is brilliant — and so obvious.

The mirror test has been used for decades to establish, so some researchers say, whether an animal has self-awareness. This is variously defined as recognizing that you exist as an individual separate from other individuals (and your environment) to, more absurdly, the definition put forth by the creator of the test and quoted in Safina’s book: “Self-awareness provides the ability to contemplate the past, to project into the future, and to speculate on what others are thinking.” Other definitions include the “capacity for introspection.” I’m not sure how recognizing yourself in the mirror reveals a capacity for introspection or an ability to project into the future, but the folks who wrote those definitions did not explain that detail.

The test involves surreptitiously putting some sort of mark on the test subject’s forehead. When the person (whether human, ape, dolphin, dog, etc.) looks in the mirror, if the person touches or tries to remove the mark, he or she is recognizing that the reflection is not some other creature but an image of himself or herself. I understand that. What Safina points out, though, is that that says nothing at all about self-awareness. What it reveals is an understanding of how reflection works. Seems pretty obvious, no?

He goes on to talk about what self-awareness really means — being aware that you, yourself, are separate from other “selves” and from the environment. He says that a creature that does not recognize this would assume that the reflection was itself since it would not differentiate its own “self” from anything else, but that would also make it impossible to move, eat, find a mate, or do much of anything, like survive. He provides wonderful examples of all kinds of non-humans showing exquisite understanding of their environments and other beings that populate those environments.

I’ll leave his discussion of theory of mind for another post.

So, what does all of this have to do with Jana? In a long-ago post, I described Jana’s experience with the mirror test, and I described her as not only self-aware but also as self-absorbed. While this might be true, I did not give her enough credit. You see, Safina points out that what some non-humans (and who knows, maybe some toddlers as well) do when they first encounter mirrors and do not (yet) understand reflection is that they try to engage with or attack the other being in the mirror. While many psychologists will say that this means that they are not self-aware, Safina makes the (again obvious) point that it absolutely shows self-awareness. Trying to play with or attack another being requires that understanding that you and he are not the same creature!

So. Jana. When Jana was a puppy, we had an older dog, Timo, who resented the puppy and did not play with her. My mom had two adult dogs, Buddy and Daisy, who also were not keen on playing with this relatively large, high-energy puppy. But at my mom’s apartment, Jana made a wonderful discovery: a puppy who kept play-bowing and acting friendly and excited to see her. Jana could not understand why this other puppy never moved beyond the play bow, however. Within a few weeks, Jana did recognize that the puppy in the mirror was actually her, and she stopped trying to get the puppy to play. I used to tell this story and say it meant that little Jana didn’t yet have self-awareness. How wrong I was!

Thanks, Dr. Safina, for pointing out that of course my brilliant puppy knew that she was a distinct individual — an individual who simply wanted a playmate.


Hoping for a Doggy Sequel

I’ll admit it up front: I might be just a bit obsessed with figuring out what goes on inside a dog’s mind. But many of you more “normal” dog lovers might appreciate a movie that helps by way of metaphor.

If you haven’t seen it yet, get yourself to the next showing of “Inside Out.” Stay for the credits. “Inside Out,” a summer blockbuster, is an animated movie that takes viewers inside the head of 11-year-old Riley Anderson. The main characters are her five primary emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.

The metaphor should be obvious: Of course dogs experience these emotions. The real question is: How is their experience similar to (and different from) ours?

I’ve always been sure that dogs experience their own versions of joy, sadness, anger, and fear. I was on the fence about dogs and disgust for a long time, though. I’ve seen dogs eat and/or roll in many, many things that certainly trigger my disgust. Their concept of disgust, if it existed, was a mystery.

Then we offered Wylie, a fussy German shepherd, a peanut butter treat. The expression on his face: Pure disgust. He actually flinched. Then he wrinkled his nose, curled his lips, and backed away. That, and the accompanying reflexive gag, couldn’t be anything else. Peanut butter was clearly a human attempt to poison him.

Then there’s Jana’s priceless, very teenagery, eye-roll when Cali and Dora get too wild. Yep. Pure disgust: Puppies. Ick.

“Inside Out,” which I personally think is meant for adults — the best stuff goes right over the kids’ heads! — explains the necessity for and connections among all of those complicated emotions. Fear makes you pay attention: It can literally wake you up. Joy helps create the core elements of your personality. Sadness makes happy memories more precious. It can also influence your choices, pushing you to make decisions that allow you to hold onto memories — or connections — that once were joyful. Anger can make you notice injustice, or even speak out against it.

Which brings us back to disgust. A key role of Disgust, according to the movie is keeping us from being poisoned; toddler Riley is sure that broccoli will kill her. Disgust doesn’t seem to play the same role for Jana, who happens to love broccoli. She also wolfs down acorns every chance she gets, despite the cramps and upset tummy that inevitably follow. She is among the many dogs who eagerly lap up things that could (and do) poison them, ranging from antifreeze to raisins or chocolate. So I am still puzzling out what the emotion of disgust does for dogs — other than convince them that their own humans are trying to poison them.

A key lesson in the film that applies equally to dogs is the link between emotions and memory. Memories without a strong emotional component fade away, turn a dull gray, and are swept into a dump by an army of technicians in Riley’s brain. (The same guys periodically send up an annoying jingle from a gum commercial to bounce around in her head all day for no particular reason. I wonder if that happens to dogs.)

One of the ways that the other emotions kept Fear under control was by creating frequent associations with Joy. This is an essential fact for anyone with a dog, particularly a puppy, to understand. To forestall fears, dogs need frequent association of positive, joyful emotions with things that could be scary — people in hats, loud noises, balloons … Ideally, this happens in early puppyhood, before the dog hits adolescence.

But even fearful adult dogs can be helped. As “Inside Out” shows, recalling a memory while in a different emotional state can alter the emotion associated with the memory. In the movie, this is dramatically illustrated when every joyful memory that Sadness touches takes on her hue of blue … but it can work the other way, too. As trainers who advocate counter-conditioning and desensitization know, we can sometimes change fearful associations to joyful ones with careful, controlled exposure and appropriate positive reinforcement.

OK, so, why should you stay for the credits? I don’t want to give too much away, but the glimpse inside the dog’s mind is enough for me to want a canine sequel. The cat might even be better …


Amazing Restraint

In Alberta’s Marshmallow Test, I described Alberta’s admirable ability to resist temptation in the form of a bowl of dog biscuits sitting alongside a water bowl outside a Michigan store. While I know personally of the hard work Alberta (and Deni) have invested in honing Alberta’s ability to resist food temptations, I also know that all dogs (with the possible exception of Cali) really are capable of learning self-restraint.
This ability is, I believe, evidence of their ability to understand what is the “right” thing to do in particular circumstances. It is certainly evidence that not all dog behavior is hard-wired or instinctive.
Some examples include dogs who learn not to take food from counters, tabletops, and plates, even when those are tantalizingly within reach. I could leave a steak dinner on the coffee table (at Jana’s nose level) and go out for an hour. If she knew that was not her food, it would all still be sitting there when I got back. Leaving it alone with impulsive youngster Cali would be a different matter, however.
An even more important example, and something anyone who lives near a road with traffic or who takes the dog for car rides should work on, is waiting at doorways. When we drive to the dog beach or park, the dogs are very excited. But even Cali, who is probably wriggling with excitement, has learned not to exit the car without explicit permission. And Jana and Cali have both learned never to bolt out the front door, not matter how seductively the park across the street beckons, no matter how many cats, UPS delivery people and mail carriers are passing by … no matter what.
I argue that these are examples of dogs “doing the right thing” because I know that they are not afraid of being punished and that these efforts are rarely rewarded. Well, at the dog beach, they do get to go play — but even when someone slips up, the worst consequence is that she’s sternly instructed to get back in the car and wait, and then released a minute later to play. The girls are not following the rules because they think they will be horribly punished if they do not. They are not expecting any significant reward, especially for resisting the impulse to run out the front door. They are doing what they know is expected of them in these common situations for no reason other than they know that it is the rule.
In fact, we ask dogs to resist behavior that comes naturally to them all the time. We ask them not to chew and lick at their itchy spots. We ask them to resist humping other dogs. We ask them not to bark at the neighbors or the mail carrier, even when he is invading their turf. We ask them to ignore food (and things they consider food) on the ground, to not chase cats and squirrels encountered on walks, and to walk nicely on a leash.
We do ask a lot of them, don’t we? And most dogs, most of the time, live up to our very high expectations. Especially if we practice with them and do reward them sometimes.
I think that we humans take it for granted that dogs should follow our very human-centered rules. I am suggesting that we look at things from their point of view once in a while, recognize how truly counter-intuitive it is for a dog to resist food that is just sitting there or to abstain from chasing that cat out of the yard. We need to recognize that our dogs pass their own marshmallow tests, every day, many times a day — and reward their efforts with praise and pats and, at least occasionally, yummy treats to reward their restraint.

Alberta’s Marshmallow Test

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In the 1970s, a psychologist tested the self-restraint of preschool children. Each child was offered a marshmallow. The children were told that they would get two marshmallows if they could delay eating the treat, and then left alone in a room for fifteen minutes. The researcher recorded what happened. The efforts of some children to stare down the treat or to distract themselves from it are both comical and painful to watch. Of course, some children inhaled the treat as soon as the researcher left the room. A recent book (The Marshmallow Test) describes this experiment and the follow-up studies of those children. The marshmallow test and other research on the ability to delay gratification shows that those who can exercise self-control in the face of temptation have better “life outcomes,” as measured by a variety of criteria, including SAT scores, social and cognitive functioning, long-term health, and retirement planning.

What does all of this have to do with thinking dogs?
Alberta experienced her own version of the marshmallow test recently. To say that Alberta loves treats is a bit like saying that I love chocolate. Alberta not only loves treats, she is not terribly fussy about which treats she gets. For sure, there are better treats, for example this bison and beef jerky concoction that I get at Costco and that, for some reason, Jana, Cali, and Alberta will do anything for. But ordinary, boring biscuits are fine too, and they are happily accepted as rewards for a job well done.

In her guide dog work, Alberta comes across many items that fit this dog’s definition of “treat,” and she works very hard to resist bits of food that just happen to be lying on the floor.
Alberta is justifiably proud of her hard-earned restraint, but more importantly, she wants Deni to know. So, in the course of a day’s work, if Alberta sees food on the floor and gives it a wide berth, she also nudges Deni to make sure that Deni knows just how good she is being. She pushes Deni hard with her nose, hoping that Deni will notice the ignored object. She often nudges Deni right near the pocket where Deni keeps the dog treats, just in case Deni might want to reward this extraordinary show of restraint. A girl can hope, can’t she?

Alberta knows the rule that she can’t grab food off the ground when she’s working. She wants to believe that that rule does not apply when she’s off-duty (her harness is off). She also knows that, even while working, she’s allowed to take treats that Deni hands her for particularly notable service. But she recently encountered a situation that blurred these lines a bit, a marshmallow test for dogs. Her reaction was remarkable.
Guiding Deni down a street in Saugatuck, Michigan, Alberta (along with her entourage of two other human family members) passed by a store that not only had a full doggy water bowl sitting by the sidewalk, but also a full bowl of doggy cookies. Just sitting there for the taking. An open invitation. Irresistible.
Or not.
Alberta headed for the water, took a drink, noticed the cookie bowl and … stopped dead. Confused. She looked at the biscuits. Looked at Deni. Furrowed her brow. Looked longingly at the treats. But she did not touch the treats.
We’d all stopped to watch the unfolding marshmallow-like drama. Alberta really wanted to gobble up as many of those dog cookies as she could. But she did not take one. She did, however, look at every one of us to make sure that we all knew how good she was being. Deni rewarded her by picking up a few biscuits from the bowl and handing them to Alberta.
Watching the interaction, I got to thinking. Most dogs who walk by this shop are not trained service dogs. Though many, like Jana and Cali, have had some training and certainly know that they are not supposed to just devour everything in sight, they don’t always have the restraint to follow through. Having more than once found myself alone with a new box of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups, I can relate.
I wondered how often a doggy passerby just digs in and eats all the cookies in the bowl. How many battles between hungry hounds and their hapless handlers has the shop owner witnessed? Does the handler ever win? And really, what was that shop owner thinking?

But back to Alberta. In need of photos for this blog post, I asked Deni to re-create Alberta’s marshmallow test. The photo gallery (presented in order) at the top of this blog post shows that, like the successful children in the original marshmallow test, Alberta devised a series of ways to distract herself. Some of the children looked away, as Alberta did. Some sang songs or recited the alphabet. Alberta did neither of these. Some children closed their eyes. Upon realizing that, even after she had turned away, the bowl of biscuits was still there, Alberta closed her eyes.

Alberta has not only learned to resist random bits of food on cafeteria floors, sidewalks, and the like, but there she was, on that Michigan sidewalk and again in Deni’s office, passing up food that was obviously meant for dogs, placed there for her enjoyment. This shows us that dogs are able to do some high-level thinking and processing.

If Alberta were purely instinct-driven, that bowl would have been emptied in seconds flat. If she were operating only out of fear of punishment or hope of reward, she might have surreptitiously sneaked a mouthful of biscuits before Deni noticed, just to see if she could get away with it — and been rewarded by the treat, even if she got scolded after. But she went beyond a gut-instinct response and even beyond the basic (low) level of moral development that governs much of human and animal behavior. She paused, checked in with Deni, and did the right thing — even though she really wanted those cookies. We’re eagerly looking forward to seeing Alberta’s SAT scores and are consulting her for retirement advice. But in my next post, I will describe more practical ways we can apply the doggy marshmallow test to our relationships with our dogs.

What Is Cognitive Education for Dogs?


Jana and Turbo toy_crop
Welcome to an all-new, improved Thinking Dog blog! It is re-launching with a new focus — cognitive approaches to educating dogs.

What does that mean? Think of it as a contrast to the more traditional approaches, many of which use force, to train dogs.

Cognitive-based dog education means teaching dogs to think their way to becoming their best selves.

Their best what, you ask? Well, that answer is different for every dog — just as it is for every person.

It’s not a new idea: In 1963, Clarence Pfaffenberger wrote a book called The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior. A line in that book beautifully captures the essence of cognitive education.  Pfaffenberger writes that the first time a puppy to removed from his or her littermates for training, the puppy is given “the dignity of being an individual.” All dogs deserve this. It is this understanding that forms the basis of cognitive education for dogs.

In 1995, Vicki Hearne published a classic piece, “A Taxonomy of Knowing: Animals Captive, Free-Ranging, and at Liberty.”  In it, she describes the ideal relationship between a human and a non-human partner (most of her examples are dogs): the team shares a goal, recognizing and respecting the unique abilities that each member of the team brings to the joint pursuit of that goal.

An animal working at liberty, Hearne writes, is one “whose condition frees her to make the fullest use of some or all of her powers.” A great example is a search-and-rescue team. The dog brings amazing powers of scent detection and tracking to the partnership; the human brings logistical planning abilities and much more. The point is, neither partner, alone, could be as successful in the goal of finding a lost child as they are as a team.

Dogs in at-liberty partnerships are being the best that they can be. Cognitive education can get you and your dog there.

Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Psych 101)? Basic stuff like food and shelter are at the bottom. More esoteric needs, like social acceptance and aesthetic enjoyment, are higher up. The highest level is self-actualization — being the best you that you can be. That is what cognitive educators want for each and every dog.

As Pfaffenberger acknowledged, each dog is a unique individual with likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses — and an idea of what he or she wants (and does not want) to do. Cognitive educators understand this and teach each dog as an individual. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to training.

This approach enables each dog to be the best (fill in the blank) that he or she can. Some dogs can become fantastic service dogs; others are destined to work as scent detection or search and rescue dogs, serve in the military, or provide loving companionship to their humans. Some pets are great athletes who enjoy dock diving; others prefer Rally, flyball, agility, or freestyle dancing. Whatever your pet’s skills and preferences, you, as a cognitive educator, friend, and companion to that dog, can help your dog explore and develop and grow.

If this sounds like something you believe in or want to learn more about, stick with The Thinking Dog blog. We’ll be exploring cognitive education from every angle — who does it and how; what it looks like in daily life; how to think like a cognitive educator; what dogs are telling you about their likes and dislikes and how to better understand them … and so much more.

Check back often, subscribe to the blog, and be sure to share it with all of your dog-loving friends.