Playing With a Dog

March 31, 2008 at 5:14 am Leave a comment


I stumbled upon a little gem in my computer today.  An insightful article titled “Playing With a Dog” that was published in The Quarterly Review of Biology in 1936.  The article is a vehicle for E.S. Russell to use observations of his fox terrier dog at play to illustrate some principles of animal behavior and cognition.

Russell wrote that before he trained his dog Gina to play with a ball, a ball held no meaning for her.  Balls were not objects she noticed or paid attention to.  But, after he trained her to play fetch, not only did a ball become significant to her but she also began to appear to categorize other objects as being ball-like.  That is, she treated objects that could be used in the same way as a ball as if they were balls (i.e. she picked them up, brought them to him and dropped them.)

Humans and animals divide objects and events into meaningful categories as one of our most basic cognitive functions.  Categories range from very basic ones like edible versus non-edible to abstract human concepts such as poetry versus prose.  Categories are bounded sharply, not transitionally.  A thing either is or is not part of a category.

The ability to categorize is an adaptive trait.  Without it every object and every event would be perceived as unique and it would be impossible for animals to generalize.  Complex behavior is based on elaborate abilities to categorize.    

Categorization is highly context-specific.  Items that on the surface seem to be utterly different (such as Frisbees and squirrels) can be viewed as highly similar if they are placed in a context (“things that are fun to chase”) that highlights an aspect they have in common (chase-ability).  The way we categorize things also depends on our life experiences and the goals we have in mind as we consider them.

The objects that Russell’s dog treated like balls didn’t look alike.  They didn’t have a common size, shape or smell.  The only qualities they shared were that they were of a size and portability such that the dog could easily pick them up and carry them. Their functional value was the basis of the dog’s categorizing them as ‘ball-like’. 

In another game, the dog was taught to bring Russell pennies to earn a bit of cheese as a reward.  Soon after she learned this trick, she began looking for penny-like objects to bring them to him to try to get cheese.  Some of the less preferred ‘ball-like’ toys were small and bright-colored or disc-shaped.  Though the dog showed only a low interest in bringing these toys to Russell when she wanted to play fetch games, she showed a stronger preference for them once she learned they might earn her cheese.  Russell stated that he thought that this indicated that an object may have different values in different contexts. 

Russell discussed the importance of the dog’s Umwelt in perception and categorization.  He noted that humans are so used to perceiving a vast number of discrete, easily discriminated objects in our own environment that we tend to assume that the world appears in a similar highly articulated and abstractly meaningful form to our dogs. In doing this, we forget that the dog’s interests are different and simpler than ours.  The dog attends to and responds only to objects or events that bear a functional importance to it.  Objects and events that only hold an abstract value (such as books, birthdays, paintings, etc.) may hold great meaning to us and be utterly unremarkable or even unknowable to our dogs. 

On the other hand, objects and events that we see as insignificant may hold great meaning to our dogs.  For example an unremarkable (to you) bit of crumpled paper on the ground might mean ‘possible bit of food’ to a dog and the soft, low rumble in the street that you tune out as meaningless may mean ‘delivery truck coming’ to your dog. 

Sadly, many dog owners aren’t aware that not only do our dogs perceive the world in a much different way than we do, but also that their system of values is poles apart from ours.  This leads to a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding and confusion for both species. 

A dog owner can’t understand why her dog would ‘thoughtlessly’ urinate on an expensive Persian rug — and her dog can’t understand why his owner is upset that he peed right in the same place where the cat did.  The rug exists in completely different realms of value and functionality in the woman’s world and in the dog’s. 

We can never inhabit the same perceptual and contextual worlds that our dogs do – but as big-brained humans we can maintain an awareness that that difference exists.  And we can use that awareness to be more patient, creative and mindful in finding ways to bridge the gap when misunderstandings occur. 

Go play with your dog.  Do it with an open mind and an open heart and you just might learn something new.

Pat Smith plays with Fly.  This is a great game and they’re both obviously enjoying it, but I’m quite sure it has very different meanings and values to both of them.

Entry filed under: animals, behavior science, dog training, dogs, science. Tags: , , , .

Man’s Best Friend Meets Man’s Next Friend Clever Isaac

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Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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