Sunday, December 13, 2015

Dogs Keep Getting Smarter...

You dog owners know this feeling. You come home after a long day at work. When you open the door, your dog doesn't have her normal enthusiasm. One look at her face tells you that she got into trouble when you were gone. Her look of guilt is obvious.

But until now, scientists were almost unanimous in claiming that your perception that your dog felt guilty was nothing more than anthropomorphism, ascribing human emotions to your dog, emotions your dog isn't really capable of.

Except, oops, it turns out that those scientists are probably wrong.

Many of these questions and their answers hinge on a concept called Theory Of Mind. It is an awkward phrase that refers to the ability of humans - and elephants, dolphins, and some other primates - to understand that different individuals have different points of view. Different minds. And when one animal understands that another animal has a different perspective - a different mind - they respond accordingly, often with empathy, acknowledging and caring for another creature who may have different desires. Another individual who may, let's say, not appreciate that you ripped up the bed while they were gone.

This is important stuff, and scientists have devised lots of tests to figure out which, if any, animals might have this Theory Of Mind ability.

One of the reasons that scientists haven't spent a lot of time testing dogs may be that they simply take dogs for granted, assuming that dogs are fun, loyal pals who love to play and will learn nearly any trick if rewarded with a treat but that may not be worthy of much research. Another reason dogs may have been overlooked by scientists is that dogs are clearly not as brilliant (IN SOME WAYS) as a few other creatures.

For example, dogs fail the "mirror test." If a dog walks into a room where one of the walls is a solid mirror, he will see his reflected image, realize it is a dog, and respond with interest. But when he walks over to "that dog," he discovers that it isn't another normal dog and that it is on the other side of glass. Soon, he loses interest, because that other dog doesn't have dog smells and doesn't act much like a dog, i.e., sniffing him all over, etc. So the dog acts as if the dog in the mirror is some strange quirk that doesn't keep his interest. Most importantly, the dog never realizes that the dog in the mirror is his own image reflected back at him.

Elephants and dolphins and multiple primates DO understand mirrors. So any scientist who doesn't look at dog intelligence with awe might be forgiven. Even so, researchers kept finding evidence suggesting that dogs do understand Theory Of Mind issues. 

One of the best indicators is a series of experiments that have been done. There are lots of variations, but a typical version involves two people, let's call them Joe and Paul, a few buckets, and a treat. The basic principle is that a dog sees Joe come into a room and drop a treat in one of the buckets, let's say, the left bucket. The dog is allowed to go to the left bucket to get the treat. If Joe leaves and then returns, the dog will respond in some fashion that indicates he remembers what Joe did. So he'll likely go over to the left bucket and beg, look into the bucket, then look up at Joe, and wag, making it clear his wish for another treat.

But what if a different person, Paul, comes into the room? Will the dog engage in the same behavior, going over to the left bucket and begging for a treat? No. The dog doesn't act the same with Paul because he knows that Paul never previously brought a treat and put it in a bucket. The dog knows that Paul has a different mind than Joe. Just because Joe leaves a treat in the left bucket doesn't mean that Paul will do anything similar, and the dog understands that.

The dog knows the difference between different people, understands that each person has their own perspective, their own "mind." Dogs may not "get" mirrors, but they "get" those aspects described by Theory of Mind.

As I was researching this, I came upon one of those "Hello, duh, how did we miss the obvious" moments. While researchers were painstakingly demonstrating that dogs can understand  the concept of different "minds," they noticed something very basic. 

Your dog exhibits bad behavior now and then, but he won't get into trouble if you are in the house because your dog knows you will catch him. Leave for any length of time, however, and watch out. Not only that, but your dog can usually tell how long you will be gone.

If, when you leave your dog alone and he recognizes the signs that you are going to the corner store, he knows that you'll be gone an unpredictable length of time, and he won't get into trouble. But if he knows you're going to work for the entire day, he may well get into trouble. This clearly shows that he understands what you want and that if he's going to succumb to the temptations of trouble, he'll choose to only do it when you're gone long enough that you won't catch him in the act. 

Great Dane stealing a steak defrosting on the top of the fridge
As any dog owner knows, your dog sometimes acts guilty because he knows he's done something you don't want. He anticipates your displeasure before you even come home to discover his bad behavior.

Once again, the more we learn about dogs, the smarter they get.

Many of you also have cats, and you know that even while cats don't have the enthusiasm and the "I'm-so-eager-to-do-stuff!" attitude of dogs, they are smart. How smart? Well, those researchers made many attempts to put cats into the same scenarios as the dogs, hoping to discover if cats have "Theory of Mind" capability.

What did they find out? Nothing, because not one of the cats they tested could have cared less about the researchers' objectives. They refused to care about the treats, or look in the buckets, or pay any attention to whether Joe or Paul was in the room! No matter how smart cats are, they won't submit to what they must think are silly research projects.

Among hundreds of videos that demonstrate just how well dogs understand that what people want is not the same thing that dogs want, this is a great one: A Pit Bull waiting to be sure that his owner is gone for good before he gets up on the bed to play.
Here's the link:

P.S. Watch the cat, too.

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