Who's a good boy?
January 17, 2011 4:28 PM   Subscribe

Dogs Themselves - A 3-Part CBC Ideas Program (MP3) Do they think in visual images - or maps, or strings of ideas, or perhaps in whole stories? Do they think at all?

New evidence reveals what dogs understand, about their world and about people, what they say and how they say it - to each other and to us - and what they know that people don't. The hidden lives of dogs themselves are uncovered by dog observers Jon Katz, Alexandra Horowitz, Clive Wynne and Monique Udell, Xioaming Wang, Gillian Ridgeway, Patricia McConnell, Jennifer Arnold and Suzanne Clothier in conversation with Max Allen.
posted by KokuRyu (38 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
My favorite story of dog problem-solving:

My parents have a Sheltie named Amber who they got just a day or so before I came home for Thanksgiving from college one year, and who imprinted on me like crazy. A few years later I was visiting them in Colorado for a week or so over the Summer, and Amber would wake me every morning by scratching at my sliding bedroom doors until she got them open.

One morning, though, I woke up to hear Amber whimpering outside my door, scratching on Cardboard. Obviously my mother was getting stuff from the basement and had blocked my door with boxes. Being slow to wake, I listened, and heard Amber then run upstairs and start barking. Then I hear my dad say, "Oh, do you need to go out, here you go," and he opens the door to the upstairs deck. Amber runs out, runs down the outdoor steps, and funds my bedroom window where she starts pawing.

So yes, dogs can think.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:55 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Do they think at all?

Of course they think. Of course they do. The fact that we can even ask myopic questions like these, after 15,000 years of sharing our lives with these creatures, makes me despair for the human race.
posted by vorfeed at 4:56 PM on January 17, 2011 [15 favorites]

dog observers Jon Katz...

posted by nzero at 5:07 PM on January 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

Do dogs react to Jon Katz the same way geeks responded to Jon Katz when he studied them through the medium of slashdot?
posted by davemee at 5:11 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Of course they think. Of course they do. The fact that we can even ask myopic questions like these, after 15,000 years of sharing our lives with these creatures, makes me despair for the human race.

Please don't despair until after you have listened to this wonderful series about dogs.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:15 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm listening to it now, thanks for the link. This is something I wonder any time I see a dog (or any animal) do something amazing or impenetrable to my human worldview.
posted by codacorolla at 5:22 PM on January 17, 2011

posted by puny human at 5:24 PM on January 17, 2011

But, there's probably no cognitive separation between the neural activity that can be called thoughts.

What do you mean by this? Are you using a rigorous definition of cognitive separation? A rigorous definition of thought?

I don't think we know enough about the nature of consciousness to be able to safely use words like "probably" regarding these issues. Particularly when couched in language as soft as that which you use here.

The history of animal cognition studies is a history of moving boundaries. Humans always try to create a special category for themselves. And now that there's firm evidence of animal cognition that looks a lot like human problem-solving, you see statements like the one I quote above. I believe it's a nonscientific statement, meant to establish an unfalsifiable boundary between human and animal cognition. It's meaningless, really.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:51 PM on January 17, 2011 [11 favorites]

Our Shelties:

We owned the male, and bred him with another sheltie owned by some friends, offering our house as the place for the puppies to be born. Timmy was my brothers' dog, and one morning, at 3:45, Timmy went nuts, running all over the house, jumping on alex's bed, barking at him, pulling off his blankets, until the whole damn house was up, with him running straight into the living room, to sit squarely next to Tess in her nest. Five minutes later, puppy number one was born. Timmy didn't leave her side for days, which could be chalked up to instinct i'm sure; but the way he looked, running around the house to wake us all up, was right on par with the same joy and fear of other new fathers, and he wanted us awake for it. Loved that damn dog.
posted by billypilgrim at 5:54 PM on January 17, 2011 [9 favorites]

Of course they can think. Do you see this? The damn dog clambers and shimmies up it exactly like the cats do. She transcends Dogness and enters the Cat-mind. She has to get a running start because she needs the momentum to bounce and claw her way up the sisal properly just like the kitties, but for a short period of time, she becomes Cat. Not an especially talented or graceful Cat, but Cat, nonetheless.

And then she eats their treats, which...that is less-enlightened of her.

I'm encouraged to note that her problem-solving skills do not include risk-analysis, because the top tier is about 6'6" high. (She hops all the way up to finish any crumbs...just not when I'm there, because she's not supposed to climb the cat condo.) Does she gingerly scoot and step her way back down?


/saving up for the inevitable Hansen's type 1 repair now...
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 6:08 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do they think at all?

Of course. Admittedly, it's mostly "Can I eat that or poop on it or both?"
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 6:34 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Despite her dingbat facade, I had always suspected that my shelter mutt Kenda is pretty bright. Well, she let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, the other night.

Mr. Ant and I have a retail shop; Kenda is a shop dog. Sometimes after work we go out to eat or run errands. When we do we leave Kenda at the shop but don't set the alarm because she's big enough to set it off, then pick her up before going home. The other night we were rushed and scatterbrained. We turned off the lights and went outside with car keys in hand, calling Kenda to come to the car. She wouldn't come. What in the world? So we went back inside, she walked to the alarm keypad and looked up at us. She very clearly told us, "If I'm leaving, you have to set the alarm."

So yes, my dog thinks. Often better than I can.
posted by workerant at 6:43 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

As someone with two cats I love more than life, but who is still so undeniably dog-crazy that I spent some time just tonight looking through the pets section of Craigslist even though I can't have a dog for at least 6 months... I came here for the adorable stories of doggies being intelligent, sweet, and loving.

Some of you have done an excellent job at this, but I'm still greatly excited to see what else can be offered. More! More!
posted by meese at 6:47 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Direct links for those of us with mp3 players:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
posted by CarlRossi at 6:54 PM on January 17, 2011 [8 favorites]

Check this out Uniformitarianism Now! -- Beagle Escape Artist
posted by puny human at 7:05 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

My dog Jove was an egg-sucking dog, the kind that gets shot where I grew up. He loved raw eggs more than just about anything. One afternoon, I got home to discover the fridge door open and the ravaged egg carton splayed on the floor with eggshell fragments scattered about. I sent Jove to his bad-dog corner on the deck. Over the next few weeks, in a series of steps, Jove learned to shut the refrigerator door, hide the empty egg carton under his dogbed, and lick up all the shells. We reached the point where Jove shoved past me when I opened the door and ran to the corner, looking sheepish yet unrepentant. I put a hasp on the fridge door.
posted by dogrose at 7:35 PM on January 17, 2011 [8 favorites]

In response to "Beagle Escape Artist":
I had a German Shepherd growing up. She had free reign of the house and our backyard which was surrounded by a 7 foot wooden fence.
She learned at a very young age how to open the latch to the fence-gate with her nose, so we would lock the latch.

About twice per year after that, someone would show up at our house with her in the back seat of their car, telling us about how she had stopped by and said hello; more than not, someone she knew from her daily walks. We would check the backyard, and the gate would be locked. She was a jumper, but 7' was FAR beyond her ability.

To this day we still have no idea how she would get out.
We nicknamed her Houdini Dog.
posted by aloiv2 at 8:02 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was about to ask the question, not being a dog owner myself, if dogs display self referential cognition. And it's pretty obvious from the anecdotes here that they do.

A question (I'm going to cross post this in askme) can anyone recommend a reliable dog training book for a beginner dog owner? And, IIRC designer breeds have been discussed on metafilter before; is the bassador breed a healthy breed.
posted by Severian at 8:07 PM on January 17, 2011

note: IANAC (not a Catholic), but the books by the Monks of New Skete are some of the best for raising/training a dog.
The Art of Raising a Puppy was how we raised my aforementioned shepherd. She would have been much more trouble had we not spent hundreds of hours working with her, and this book was a HUGE help. It really stressed the nature of pack mentality, which is absolutely necessary when raising a puppy/training a dog.
posted by aloiv2 at 8:18 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

"If lions could talk, we still wouldn't be able to understand them." -Wittgenstein
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:56 PM on January 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

My parents have a very sweet and snuggly poodle who's a serious couch potato. Their house is arranged so that the sliding door to the backyard is in the family room, which also has a big comfortable couch set up across from a TV. When someone is lounging around on the couch, instead of approaching them and asking to be let out, the dog will go find the next-closest person and bug them instead. Nobody recalls discouraging him from getting them off the couch. I think it's just that the dog has a nuanced understanding of laziness.
posted by bewilderbeast at 8:56 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

This was a pretty good series, even if Ideas has been rerunning the hell out of it. And that one lady annoyed the hell out of me. But still, highly recommended!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:14 PM on January 17, 2011

Oh, I'd say that dogs can think.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 9:19 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love dogs, but it seems like some of the anecdotes supporting critical thought in canines can be explained by habitual behaviors (gesturing to turn off the alarm) or a keen sense of smell (the grave).

I hope I'm wrong, and definitely want more stories like these (I just don't find them convincing, that's all)
posted by rubah at 10:20 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know how smart they are, but living with dogs has been a fun opportunity to have experiences with a very different sort of intelligence from the human sort to which I'm accustomed. I am always interested in what my dogs are able to learn. For example, my dogs are both still young, and they tend to play together whenever they aren't sleeping. Outdoors, this can be quite violent - never drawing blood, of course, but they can regularly be seen sparring and playing on their hind legs, leaping around, etc. I can't let their play get like this indoors, since our house is small and full of furniture, but I don't like to bar them from playing quietly as long as it stays subdued. At first, this seemed basically impossible to teach them. I pretty much figured it was going to be a lifelong thing to make sure play didn't get out of hand inside.

After a couple of months of casual (read: not as consistent as it could have been) enforcement, it's clear they now understand that they can keep playing as long as they're lying down. Even if I'm not in the room, it's rare to see them inside getting up to play. Instead, they mouth and paw at each other without getting up. It's hilarious to watch - they get up to a lot of contortions to make it work - but I'm really impressed that they *both* managed to figure out that I wasn't stopping them from playing when they were down, and was breaking it up when they were up. I think without any sort of common verbal or gestural language it would be very hard for me to figure out that another human was trying to convey that.
posted by little light-giver at 11:30 PM on January 17, 2011

rubah: "some of the anecdotes supporting critical thought in canines can be explained by habitual behaviors "

The same goes for evidence of intelligence in humans.
posted by idiopath at 11:58 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

The history of animal cognition studies is a history of moving boundaries. Humans always try to create a special category for themselves.

I've always seen the opposite -- a naive and sometimes tragic tendency to anthropomorphize. Grizzly Man being maybe the saddest and most memorable example.
posted by eugenen at 12:21 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Chaser, the dog, has a vocabulary of over 1000 nouns. Even if this feat is accomplished by "brute repetition", it is hard to imagine this level of learning without some pretty developed thought on his part. As noted in the article, there's an episode of Nova touching upon this subject that airs on Feb 9.
posted by esome at 2:00 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

My family's show dog reject Tiger (a Golden whose parents were show dogs, but she has a heart murmur, she she can't be bred, and thus can't be shown) once shared our house with a Yorkie named Abby who was INSANE. Tiger clearly didn't like her, but didn't seem to think there was much she could do about it.

One night, both dogs were getting their raw hide chews on in my parents room, and Tiger more or less destroyed hers in a matter of minutes. From their vantage point on their bed, my parents watched Tiger eye Abby eating her chewy, get up, walk into the closet, and take out a pair of socks from the bin on the floor. She then walked over to Abby and, standing in front of her, proceeded to shake the socks around until Abby noticed. Abby LOVED to play with socks, like more than anything. So Abby sees Tiger with the socks, jumps up, dropping her chewy, and takes the socks away from Tiger. She immediately dives under my parents bed, sort of her trump card. Tiger takes the raw hide chew and tears out of the room.

There was a lot going on there: First, Tiger saw what she wanted. I don't know if she worked backwards to get to a solution or not, but she did know that Abby liked to play with socks, and she anticipated Abby's reaction to seeing her playing with the socks. She figured all of this out, set a plan, and then put it into action.

My parents let her get away with it. We were all too impressed to discourage such behavior.
posted by gc at 3:56 AM on January 18, 2011 [8 favorites]

Pffft I already know what's going on in my house.

The 15 year old mixed breed border collie thinks the 5 year old pure bred border collie is a turd.

The 5 year old b.c. thinks the 15 year old is a crab whose butt stinks.

The 10 year old Siamese thinks the 16 year old fat cat is...fat.

The 16 year old fat cat thinks the Siamese is a dumbass and can't wait for him to leave.

There. Mystery solved.
posted by stormpooper at 6:17 AM on January 18, 2011

Well, what is "thinking" where a dog is concerned? Certainly, they can interact and respond to their environment and understand gestures. But, there's probably no cognitive separation between the neural activity that can be called thoughts.

I'm having trouble understanding what you're saying here. If you're saying that, in dogs, perceptual areas are directly hooked up to motor areas, with no intermediary steps, well, I'm not sure where you got that. Dogs have prefrontal cortex too. It's not as large relative to body size, but it's there. If you're saying that dogs can't remember or respond to stimuli that's no longer present in the animal's perceptual environment, that's patently false, as any dog owner knows: just roll a ball under the couch, and see Snuggles go into a state of quivering frustrated anticipation.
posted by IjonTichy at 7:46 AM on January 18, 2011

posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 7:49 AM on January 18, 2011

Get a terrier. Within a week you'll be convinced they think you're an asshole.
posted by HumanComplex at 8:21 AM on January 18, 2011

I listened to the first segment, and it was really interesting. I wish there was a text transcript, because sometimes it's hard for me to take stuff away from just listening to it (especially when I'm doing other idle browsing at the same time), but there were a few things I found interesting:

- Dogs primarily perceive the world through scents and sounds, and they probably know if you've been drinking, just had sex, have a cold, or any number of things that might not immediately be apparent to a human. There's also something in there about how scent travels slower than sound, and certainly slower than light, meaning that the mind inside of a dogs head has a different sort of experience lag to it than a human's would.

- Dogs behave like heavily autistic people are thought to behave, largely relying on routine and tradition for a sense of balance. It makes me wonder what this does to dogs that travel a lot (like celebrity pets, or rescue animals), compared to an animal that spends 95% of its time in the same couple hundred foot radius. The idea that dogs have a map in their head of how their world should be, and then react to perceived differences in the map is pretty cool.

- Katz mentions that his dogs have different personalities. The therapy dog is very social and depends on people for satisfaction, whereas the shepherding dog likes to work, and is less needy for human interaction.

This made me wonder how cats are different than dogs, while sharing the same common ancestry of being a created species.

I've only listened to the first one so far, what sort of content are in the other two discussions?
posted by codacorolla at 9:13 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

rubah: "some of the anecdotes supporting critical thought in canines can be explained by habitual behaviors "

Well, one of these dogs invented his own gravity sport and then taught it to his buddy.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 12:55 PM on January 18, 2011

Max Allen is one of my neighbours and every time I've been in his house in the last 4 months, there have been about 40 books about dogs on his table. He has two standard poodles, Ruby and Ted, and I walk them with him every chance I get.

Among the many dog-related emails I've gotten from him lately were these youtube videos:

- World's Smartest Dog Jesse performs Amazing Dog Tricks
- Useful dog tricks by Jesse
- Amazing Double Dog Tricks with Kaine and Jesse


Attila Szkukalek & Fly: Freestyle dog dancing. The Charlie Chaplin dance is so good.
posted by heatherann at 6:47 PM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The same goes for evidence of intelligence in humans.

I need some idea of what intelligence means, I guess. Going to a grave because it smells familiar doesn't seem any more intelligent than throwing away rotten food because it smells unfamiliar.
posted by rubah at 7:05 PM on January 19, 2011

I guarantee you that the dog's owner's rotting carcass is not a familiar smell. All those others behaviors you've described exhibit intelligence, as well. Also, you missed the part where those labs invented their own gravity-sport. Sorry, but sliding winter-sports for dogs is in no way "instinctive".
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:23 PM on January 19, 2011

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