Rob Hardy: Inside the mind of a dog

October 23, 2009 2:13:00 PM

Rob Hardy - robhardy@earthlink.net

 

Scientifically, we might know a lot more about rats than we do about dogs. There are some experimental labs that have dogs as subjects, but lab rats get a lot of scientific attention. Dogs get a lot of domestic attention, but scientific study of dogs, and the ways they get along with humans and with other dogs, has not been a high concern.  

 

That may be because we think we know dogs; they are frank and open, and we live closely with them. Alexandra Horowitz thinks we don''t know enough, and some of what we know is wrong, and she is out to change our perception of dogs and to do it scientifically. She has to work at making herself a detached observer; she might be a psychologist who has studied cognition in humans, dogs, bonobos and rhinoceroses, but among the first sentences of her book "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know" (Scribner) is, "I am a dog person." Is she ever.  

 

She didn''t deliberately make Pumpernickel, her mixed breed live-in friend (she is an advocate for adopting mutts), a subject of scientific study, but Pump was her entrance, for instance, to the dog park where she could film the interactions of other dogs for acute detailed study later. She gives loving anecdotes of the late Pump in every chapter to illustrate her more objective findings, nicely showing how her scientific examination of dogs paid off in her understanding of her own dog.  

 

There are people who worry that scientific examination of any phenomenon takes away the mystery and specialness of the phenomenon, and among the fine lessons in this amusing and enlightening book is that this is far from true. 

 

A foundation of Horowitz''s insight is the work of the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll, who wrote in the early 20th century that to understand any animal you had to try to understand its umwelt, its subjective world. This might seem to be obvious, but it was revolutionary at the time, and it is still exceptionally hard to do. After all, we have our own umwelt, and although ours may have some overlap with that of dogs, they are far from identical.  

 

To try to understand the subjective world of any other animal is to make imaginative leaps based on the best data available, and this is what Horowitz has tried to do throughout. To take one of her examples, a rose for humans is a thing of visual and olfactory beauty, and also has connotations of a love gift. Dogs are having none of this. It is just another plant among all the plants that surround it; it does not look attractive, and unless some dog has urinated on it recently, it does not smell attractive.  

 

Otherwise, the rose doesn''t exist. A hammer similarly does not exist in a dog''s world, unless it has the scent of a person on it, or unless its hard wood handle might be a chew toy. Our lack of comprehension of the dog''s view can lead to misunderstanding. Dog owners frequently buy a dog bed so that the dog will no longer use the human bed, but this is to impose our idea of bed upon the dog.  

 

Sure, the dog bed is soft and accessible, but dogs will sleep and rest in a host of places, not in one we know to categorize as "dog bed", and the dog bed has a distinct lack of appeal for a dog: it doesn''t have the presence or the scent of the humans the dog likes. 

 

The dog''s world is one largely of smells. Everyone knows that dogs are better at detecting odors than we are, even if not all dogs have the super-olfaction of, say, bloodhounds. It isn''t just that they can smell more scents, at thinner concentrations, than we; it''s that they gaze at the world by sniffing, and it presents a very different world from ours.  

 

Smell, for dogs, has plenty of meanings, but one of them is time. A strong spell is new, a fading one is old. Not only that, but the future may be borne on a breeze if the dog is walking upwind. In scents, the dog doesn''t just experience the current scene in an olfactory way, "...but also a snatch of the just-happened and the up-ahead. The present has a shadow of the past and a ring of the future about it."  

 

Dogs even go about the mechanics of sniffing in a different fashion than we do. If you want to smell a flower, you put your nose close to it and inhale deeply. Dogs do this, too, but a dog nose helps air currents pull scent in even during exhalation. They get more scent that way and there is no interruption of it. It is a very different umwelt from ours. Horowitz goes on to show how differently dogs see and hear than we do, as well. 

 

Dogs are evolutionarily descended from wolves, and sometimes dog owners are advised to treat their dogs as lower-caste members of a pack. Horowitz prescribes caution in such interpretations. Dogs are not wolves and have cast away many wolf traits during their evolution.  

 

Dogs scavenge more than they hunt and they do not, for instance, hunt in packs. Wolf packs are families; they are not a bunch of wolf individuals each trying to assume the leadership or "alpha" spot.  

 

Dog owners who use physical punishment or harsh words are not making an imitation of a wolf pack environment, but are rather participating in "the timeworn fiction of the animal kingdom with humans at the pinnacle, exerting dominion over the rest."  

 

A person (non-wolf) attempting to subdue a dog (non-wolf) in wolf fashion is missing what is special about the human-dog bond. Dogs, for instance, like eye contact; wolves avoid it. Dogs are "predisposed to inspect our faces for information, for reassurance, for guidance." It was a smart thing for dogs to do as we domesticated them; we like eye contact with our friends, and it is pleasing to have dogs show such interest in us. There are many experiments described here (some of which Horowitz has herself been in charge of), and one of them involves "gaze following". Dogs can look at our eyes, and can tell where we are looking, so they look over that way, too.  

 

The sections of the book that are the most fun are the ones on play. Play is, in the scientific definition Horowitz gives, "a voluntary activity incorporating exaggerated, repeated behaviors, extended or truncated in duration, varied in fortitude, and atypically combined; and using action patterns that have identifiable, more functional, roles in other contexts."  

 

She goes on to say that this definition is not written that way to take the fun out of play, but to reliably recognize it for the sorts of studies she has done. Dogs play more than wolves do, and unlike most animals, they play as adults. It is a bit of a mystery; it isn''t essential for dogs to play to get their needed social skills, and it does cost energy and the risk of injury. Horowitz took her films of dogs at play and viewed them at a very slow rate: "I could see the mutual nods that preceded a chase. I saw the head-jockeying, open-mouth volleys that blurred into unrecognizability in real time." Essential are signals like the "play bow" with which all dog owners are familiar. There are more subtle versions, too, but they all mean that the biting, chasing, and slamming that is about to happen is all in fun and is not aggressive. Separate from these are attention-getting signals, the barks or the light bite or bump on the rump which are meant to distract the receiver-dog''s thoughts from whatever other stuff is going on and fasten them on the signaler. Dogs are good at following these rules; a strapping wolfhound and a tiny Chihuahua can negotiate a play session efficiently, with the former handicapping itself to enjoy the mock aggressiveness of the latter. 

 

Horowitz has provided a useful service in her brightly-written summary of experiments and current theories on the minds of dogs. I have an idea that people keep dogs around not just because of their goofy affection for us, or because they are so entertaining, but simply because they are interesting. It is fun to see how a creature who has evolved an intelligence different from our own gets along in the world. Horowitz''s book helps explain that interest, and heighten it. 

 

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is robhardy@earthlink.net.