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, Theyre gonna get away. He didnt want to come. He said, I think its a bad call. And I argued with him, and I said, No. Come! And he said, Nah nah I tell you, theyre 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 Damians 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 dogs thoughts as the two of them, together, interacted with three other animals, the sheep.
While Damians 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 sheepdogs momentary hesitation to follow, but he thought little about it; Damians description revealed a reciprocal exchange, a negotiation between human and dog based upon each ones 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 couldnt 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 dogs ability to herd, including the dogs 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 dogs intentions and perceptions, and to anticipate the animals next move (as well as those of the sheep)…
Being an expert at interacting with dogs not only means a brain thats 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 animals 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 were using the same equipment to perceive a dogs or sheeps 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 were 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 animals capacities, over-anthropomorphising their cognition.
Sheepdog trials and that man-sheep-dog configuration remind us that humans do not face other animals alone. Lets 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.