Those doggy-people

Those doggy-people keep saying that dogs are special and they communicate with their dogs who have feelings similar to their own. Non-doggy-people just shake their heads. With a few caveats, I’m with the doogy-people.

People differ and so do dogs. Some dogs are unbelievably dumb or uninterested in their human companions or just uncooperative. At the other end of the scales, there are some very smart dogs, some very caring dogs and some dogs very willing to please. I just read a review of an article (Hecht 2012 Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dogs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci.) about whether dogs show guilt, and kept thinking about a dog I had that was just plain sneaky, always playing games of deception. That dog would never let on that she had done something wrong. We might be able to guess that something was amiss if she was exceptionally friendly in a carefree manner. I would think, what is she hiding? Of course, she looked contrite when she was caught red-handed but that was just to shorten her scolding. Now, of course, I know that this description, if anything, makes the dog appear more human-like then a similar description of a dog that appears to show guilt. The point I am making is that dogs are a very mixed lot. I have known dogs that followed where I was pointing and dogs that didn’t. I have had dogs that understand many words and ones that only had a handful. Some dogs are jealous, some not, and so on.

But there are three reasons to assume (as much as is reasonable for any particular dog) that they have similar emotions, moods. signals etc. to ourselves. The first reason is that all mammals have similar brain types, hormones, sense organs and so on. We have to have a reasons to assume that they work differently from humans, not reasons to think they work the same. So if they look guilty than the starting point should be that they are feeling guilty. We might (and do) want to check that assumption, but it is only good physiology to start with the assumption of similarity.

The second reason we are reasonable in assuming dogs are similar to us is that we have lived together long enough to have developed over that time behaviours that work for both dogs and humans. We could have bred dogs that had the capacity to some small amount of guilt if they did not start out with any.

But the third reason is different. We humans are better at dealing with others if we use the system that comes naturally to us. We are social animals and have ways of understanding each other. It is simply easier to understand a dog if they view dogs as similar to people, than it is to view it as unlike anything else, a black box machine-like thingy. This idea was well said by a sheepdog trialer quoted in a post by Greg Downey on Paul Keil’s work (here). There is a lot in this post and it is well worth following the link to read the rest and look at the video clips.

In the demonstration for Paul, Damian (the trialer) intentionally gave Whiskey (the dog) a bad command, encouraging the dog to move in a way that was likely to cause the sheep to bolt out of control. After the sheep got loose, Damian described his interaction with Whiskey: I made the dog come around this way [clockwise around the mob of three sheep]. He said, ‘They’re gonna get away.’ He didn’t want to come. He said, ‘I think it’s a bad call.’ And I argued with him, and I said, ‘No. Come!’ And he said, ‘Nah nah… I tell you, they’re gonna go.’ And then he started to come, and the sheep started to go, and then he went, ‘See, I told ya’…

Of course, at no time did Whiskey actually speak to Damian. And Damian’s signals were whistles, shouts, and gestures, much simpler than the elaborate interpretation that Damian offered in his post-interaction analysis… Damian was explaining his perceptions of his dog’s thoughts as the two of them, together, interacted with three other animals, the sheep.

While Damian’s recollection was no doubt intentionally anthropomorphised, and possibly better elaborated than usual – giving the dog a voice – because of the sympathetic audience, the interaction that had occurred only minutes earlier was far more complex than a novice like Paul could recognise. Sure, Paul heard Damian give the command and witnessed the sheepdog’s momentary hesitation to follow, but he thought little about it; Damian’s description revealed a reciprocal exchange, a negotiation between human and dog based upon each one’s perceptions of the sheep and their spatial and emotional relations. Paul was simply not privy to a lot of the detail of their communication because he couldn’t see it. Whiskey was a far more sophisticated social agent then Paul could initially grasp…

The dog was not simply a tool, or merely obedient to a guiding human intelligence; on some level, Whiskey grasped what needed to be done, and Damian had come to count on the dog’s ability to herd, including the dog’s perception of how stressed and liable to flight the sheep were. The key to being an expert dog trialer, then, included the ability, not just to train a dog to herd, but to perceive the dog’s intentions and perceptions, and to anticipate the animal’s next move (as well as those of the sheep)…

Being an expert at interacting with dogs not only means a brain that’s better attuned to how dogs communicate; in fact, experts and non-experts, in most respects, are quite similar. Expertise means having behaviour patterns that include knowing where to search the animal’s body for information and greater tendency to ‘mentalise’ or impute motives to the animals (whether those projections are accurate is a separate question)…

That is, anthropomorophism may not be neurologically or biologically accurate, but it may be cognitively and practically useful, helping handlers to projectively scenario-build as they interact with their sheep and dogs (who are also engaged in their own cognitive forms of anticipation and negotiation with each other). Part of ‘thinking like a dog’ or a sheep may be inaccurately assuming that dogs and sheep are ‘thinking like an (admittedly odd or not terribly bright) four-legged human.’…Trialers would be the first to admit that the minds of sheep and dog are not the same as that of humans. They believe anthropomorphising the animals is a grave mistake. Most veteran trialers believe that the boundary between dogs and humans is wide and should not be blurred, or the dogs’ performance will suffer.

Still, even sheepdog trialers who are acutely aware of their dogs’ limits attribute internal mental states and dispositions such as ‘confidence,’ ‘beliefs,’ and ‘thoughts,’ not hesitating to project human-like cognitive events to their animals. If humans recruit the same socio-cognitive, neurological mechanisms they use with fellow humans to engage in the same kinds of interactions with other organisms, the overlap between folk psychological language for animals and humans should not be surprising. That is, if we’re using the same equipment to perceive a dog’s or sheep’s intentions as that we use to figure out what each other are thinking, anthropomorphizing is likely, even in old-school dog trialers who have strictly instrumental relations with their dogs and sheep, much more so than most people with their companion animals.

Of course, if folk psychological language suggests we’re using the same cognitive or neurological mechanisms we use for reading humans, we would expect a degree of anthropomorphic ‘overshoot.’ Cognitive overlap in the ability to perceive animal intentionality would likely lead us to over-estimate the nonhuman animal’s capacities, over-anthropomorphising their cognition.

Sheepdog trials and that ‘man-sheep-dog’ configuration remind us that humans do not face other animals alone. Let’s not forget the dogs. As Shipman has pointed out, dogs are special. When our ancestors and the ancestors of dogs came into contact, two species with extraordinary social skills, and surprisingly similar pack hunting strategies, began a long relationship that arguably shaped the evolution of both over the next thousands of years. … Dogs may be ‘overshooting’ their attribution of dog-like responses when they interact with us. … Do dogs bring their own canine-morphistic tendencies to relationships with humans and other animals?

Whether their ‘readings’ of the animals’ states are accurate is less important than the fact that both species communicate in predictable, useful ways so that they can work together, anticipate each others’ actions, and live in stable inter-species communities.

But I have to say that if a model works well and is useful, it is unlikely to be completely wrong. When anthropomorphism works very well (as it does with dogs) then it is probably somewhat accurate. I am very inclined to view my dog as a conscious animal with similar emotions and low-voltage but similar thinker.

3 thoughts on “Those doggy-people

  1. Dogs may be ‘overshooting’ their attribution of dog-like responses when they interact with us. … Do dogs bring their own canine-morphistic tendencies to relationships with humans and other animals?

    I don’t doubt that dogs caninemorphise us just like we anthropomorphise dogs, and I also think it is considered common knowledge. For example, kids (and everybody else) are taught to not look a dog they don’t know straight into the eyes, because the dog may misinterpret it as a challenge for dominance. I suppose that would be a case of caninemorphising - a direct stare can mean a challenge for dominance in ‘humanish’ too, but a human wouldn’t challenge a dog’s rank and direct eye contact can mean a long range of things (well, it can for a dog too).

    Another example:

    The dogs ‘play bow’ position & moves means: ‘wanna play?’ in doggish. The play bow involves bowing down in the front legs and/or bouncy, ‘silly’ moves and can involve a variety of related cues. It can be very subtle when dogs know each other well, so for example my dogs rarely do the full bow, one dog can look at the other and do just a subtle hint of a bounce, and off they chase.

    I decided to see if my dogs would caninemorphise me so I did a playful, bouncy move in front of them, and they immediately picked up the cue. They responded with big play bows and big bouncy moves dancing excitedly around me. So, the dogs presumed that I am ‘similar’ to them in that the bounce meant that I wanted to play, and they responded just like if I was a dog.

  2. Anyway, this is a good post and a great topic.

    I agree that anthropomorphising is useful as a trait that facilitates and encourages relationships and interaction between species, especially dogs.

    Where anthropomorphising dogs gets problematic is when it makes dog owners mistreat or not appropriately train their dogs due to assumptions that the dogs misbehave on purpose and don’t need training.

    The most typical example I can think of is when dog owners assign a human time perception to their dogs. That means they may punish dogs for something they have done a little while ago, like earlier the same afternoon or just ten minutes ago. - and it doesn’t work.

    The dog relate to the present only (although they do of course have memories), while humans have a much deeper time horizon. We relate to past, present, near and far future events in a controlled manner and have very abstract thinking skills. Dogs don’t have that capacity for mental time travel, so when a dog is punished it relates the punishment to its current situation, not what happened half an hour ago.

    Two typical examples:

    1. Dog bolts off and enjoys heaps of fun while owner calls in vain. When the dog eventually decides to return home, the fuming owner punishes the dog - and the dog relates the punishment to returning home. Next time the dog still bolts off and has a fun time, but is even more reluctant to return home, and when it happens the owner is even more fuming and punishes the dog even harder. [Repeat indefinitely…]

    2. Owner comes home and finds trash spread all over the floor, and punishes the dog. The dog associates the punishment with the owner coming home and finding the trash, but not with having fun playing with the trash bin when home alone, because that was a while ago and a different situation. So the dog keeps doing it. When the owner comes home, the dog feels scared because it knows it will be punished: there is trash on the floor - and acts apologising and pleasing to minimise the punishment: ‘guilty’.

    The problem is in both examples that the dog keeps misbehaving and if it is really unlucky could end up in a pound.

  3. Hi Janet
    Thanks for the interesting posts.
    I have been reading Temple Grandin’s books. As you probably know she is a “very high functioning autistic” person. She has really expanded her life through her interaction and understanding of cattle. She feels that autistic people think more like other animals than do most other humans. I am not sure how this directly relates to what you are saying except that it appears to me that often people seem to develop very deep and quite complex communication with non-human animals that they are close to. And another thing to remember is that some animals, for example dogs, prove to be (through either nature or nurture and probably both) very much more perceptive than other animals.

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