Sunday, October 17, 2004

Human conceit

Yesterday when we were out, one of the things I came across was a review of a book called, I think, How Dogs Think, aserious work on the consciousness of dogs. I find it amazing... actually, make that distressing... that in this day and age, there are still people who argue that dogs and other higher animals can't think. That they're not consciously aware. How can anyone believe that? Okay, they don't talk, and they can't tell us in abstracts. But a lot of humans can't either. Does that mean they're not consciously aware? This is a logic bomb that could flatten Hiroshima all over again. At the moment, I'm sharing my place with two cats and a dog. It's entirely self-evident to me that they think, feel, and are aware of themselves, each other, and me as beings (as opposed to things). And moreover, that they are capable of identifying and reacting to the emotional states of the other beings around them. There is no vast difference between us. The differences are quantitative, not qualitative. I will say that I do believe that we, as humans, think more profoundly in abstractions than any other kind of animal we know about (though I admit, I'm not sure when it comes to dolphins and orcas and whales... who knows what they're capable of?). We are a remarkable species in the rare combination of abilities we have and what they enable us to achieve (like you reading my words from hundreds or thousands of miles away, without necessarily ever having met me in person). But all the others are remarkable in different ways. If aliens arrived on Earth after humans were dead and gone, they would still find intelligent life on Earth. Cats, dogs, raccoons, whales, dolphins, octopi, ravens, crows... hundreds of intelligent species. Just not technological ones. It's not the same thing. It's only our arrogance that makes us equate the two. But anyway, the book sounds very interesting and I'd like to look it up because I do love dogs, and I bet a lot of what the author says applies to cats as well.

I notice that the Globe and Mail has the review up on its website. Since the availability of such resources is notoriously ephemeral, I'm going to quote the article here for you, in the hopes that it will spark you too to look for the book... and to read the Globe and Mail! :)

I sniff, therefore I am

Saturday, October 16, 2004 - Page D14

How Dogs Think:
Understanding the Canine Mind
By Stanley Coren
Free Press, 351 pages, $37.50

It's 2004. We can clone sheep and catapult humans into outer space. But if 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes were miraculously restored to life, this evidence of scientific progress might astonish him less than the immutability of his own views about the nature of dogs and other animals: that unlike humans, they cannot think and are therefore mere "automata."

Stanley Coren wishes "we could dismiss these kinds of arguments as simply reflecting attitudes of an unenlightened and best forgotten past," when anguished dogs were nailed to planks and eviscerated so their physiology could be observed. But some modern theorists still deny that animals suffer conscious pain, and that injuring them is, therefore, a moral issue. In response, Coren, a University of British Columbia psychology professor and bestselling author of The Intelligence of Dogs, once again takes up his literary cudgels to establish beyond all doubt that dogs are, indeed, thinking beings.

Most of us who live with Canada's four million dogs do not need to be convinced that they think. We will, however, learn a great deal about how they do so, and what sorts of things they think about. And, should we ever find ourselves, in Coren's words, "joining that argument in [a] room full of behavioural scientists and philosophers," we'll be well armed with data.

Coren's methodology is to establish scientific "givens," examine and contextualize canine physiology ethologically, then proceed to his own hypotheses and conclusions. He reviews experiments and studies by researchers and the observations of dog trainers, and supplements this with anecdotal data that will surely resonate with dog-knowledgeable readers.

To express the dog's thought processes, Coren modifies the Cartesian "I think, therefore I am" to "I sniff, therefore I am." Unlike vision-oriented humans, the dog's nose "not only dominates his face, it also dominates his brain and thus his picture of the world." Beagles and German shepherds, for instance, have 225 million scent receptors; we humans have a paltry five million.

One consequence of this extraordinary sniffing ability is that if a five-millionth of a gram of butyric acid, a component of sweat, is dissolved in one million litres of water, a dog can detect it. Search-and-rescue dogs locate humans under tons of rubble, drug dogs detect substances hidden in human orifices or vats of sardine oil, explosive-detecting dogs identify explosives among soiled baby diapers, medic dogs sniff out cancerous growths. Dogs use their extraordinary noses to glean information about their world, their pack members and their enemies. When the family pooch investigates a fire hydrant, she is keeping up to date with local news: a passing bitch is pregnant, a young dog is flouting his dominance, another one is timid and submissive.

Dogs also collect information from sensory nerves on the lips, from the specialized nerves on the pads of their feet and, like cats, through their whiskers. They learn as well from their environment, by observation and interaction with other dogs, humans and animals such as sheep, chickens and cats. "A dog must socialize to dogs in order to learn that he is a dog and how to function in a canine society," Coren writes, "but he must also learn how to act and behave in a society of people, meaning that he must socialize to humans."

Coren devotes considerable space to the ever-fascinating subject of dog breeds, the result of mankind's tinkering with the canine species. In the 18th century, for instance, monks in a French dog-breeding monastery selected for "Christian traits" such as loyalty, affection, co-operation and, above all, obedience.

Swiss monks raised St. Bernards which seek out travellers lost in snowy mountains; while one of the big dogs trots off to summon help, two others keep the victim alive and warm by lying down on either side of him.

As in The Intelligence of Dogs, Coren ranks breeds in descending order for such traits as excitability, aggression toward other dogs, snapping at children, dominance over owner, territorial defence, destructiveness, playfulness and demand for affection. These new lists are sure to generate controversy. Let me sling the first shot: Though I was gratified to find beagles second on the sociability list, I was perplexed as to why these esteemed airport contraband sniffers are consigned to the bottom of the trainability list, just seven spots above the famously dense (though admittedly gorgeous) Afghan hounds.

Despite his interest in breed characteristics, Coren stresses the importance of environment in shaping a dog's personality. "Breeds and breeding make a difference," he writes, "but they merely favour or predispose a dog to achieve a certain temperament. There is more difference between individual dogs in any given breed than there is between breeds and bloodlines." As in people, so in their canine companions.

In his final chapter, Coren answers the key question -- "Do dogs really have a conscious and rational mind that works like our own?" -- with a resounding Yes! Dogs remember objects and sequences of events, they have self-awareness and they predict how others will act, draw conclusions and act on them. Coren quantifies dogs' intelligence as equivalent to that of a human child from 2 to more than 4.

How Dogs Think is much more than a treatise on the canine mind. By explaining canine thinking and modes of learning, it will be immensely helpful to anyone training a dog. Coren recommends consistency, praise and food rewards as training methods, and advises against punishment because "a sensible dog may try to escape and evade further contact with his owner . . . another negative outcome is that it establishes the fact that aggression is not only possible but permissible between the dog and what he considers to be the rest of his pack."

"Training dogs is easy, " Coren concludes, "training trainers is hard."

Coren's range of knowledge, his clarity in presenting his material and his originality and common sense in interpreting it, combine to make this essential reading for anyone who cares about man's best friend. It brought me a deeper understanding of my own dogs and put certain of their behaviours into perspective. And finally, How Dogs Think fulfils Coren's goal of providing solid data to counter arguments from the inevitable naysayers.

Elizabeth Abbott's beagles, Russell and Pumpkin, and their dachshund sister, Alice, sniffed at this review and regret that it omits their favourite story about how the beagle, Darby, tricked Coren into bending over like a human stepladder up to the counter where the cat Loki's kibble was kept.

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