Posts tagged ‘theories of mind’

Who’s a Smart Boy?

You’ve seen the thought go through your dog’s head “Should I chase the squirrel and risk Mom’s wrath – or ignore the evil rodent invader and get a liver treat?”   Frustrating as it can be, your dog’s indecision may represent more than simple disobedience. It could be evidence that he’s self-aware.

An article recently published in LiveScience presents some thought-provoking ideas about what may be going on inside a dog’s head:

J. David Smith of the University at Buffalo notes that humans are capable of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. “Humans can feel uncertainty. They know when they do not know or remember, and they respond well to uncertainty by deferring response and seeking information,” Smith writes in the September issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

And accumulating research, he says, suggests metacognition is not unique to humans.

“The idea is that some minds have a cognitive executive that can look in on the human’s or the animal’s thoughts and problem-solving and look at how its going and see if there are ways to guide it or if behavior needs to pause while more information is obtained,” Smith told LiveScience.

Metacognition is thinking about thinking. Some believe that the ability to reflect on one’s own mental processes is unique to sapient species and some believe it is a hallmark of the capacity for sapience. A sapient being is capable of rational thought and action and Homo sapiens defines himself by being sapient – but there’s a lot of controversy about which non-human animals are sapient.

Studying metacognition in Homo sapiens is relatively simple because we can explain our feelings to each other, but scientists have to get a lot more creative to study these processes in animals.  Smith is approaching the problem by studying uncertainty monitoring.  As humans we can (usually) recognize when we don’t know something.  We have the capacity to be consciously uncertain.  Uncertainty monitoring is well-recognized as a form of metacognition, or thinking about thinking.  Smith believes that evidence that some animals are capable of uncertainty monitoring presents strong evidence for metacognition in animals.

But it’s not the only evidence. Or even, IMO, the most interesting evidence.

While children engage in pretend play, they need to understand their own thoughts and beliefs along with their playmates thoughts and beliefs. Play involves pretense, and pretense implies intention.

Alexandra Horowitz is a professor of psychology at Barnard College and author of Inside of a Dog a book about how dogs perceive the world (a book I highly recommend).   Her 2002 dissertation; The behaviors of theories of mind, and A case study of dogs at play proposes that play “is a good place to look for mindful behavior in animals”. Horowitz writes:

Social play is a tractable, evolved behavior. It is a coordinated, cooperative dance that seems to require negotiation, flexible communication skills, and some ability to distinguish reality from pretend. The study of play has blossomed in the last century, though it was once thought to be unworthy of analysis. While at one time educators considered play to be trivial, “developmentally irrelevant”, now play behavior is strongly implicated in human development: in the emergence of tool use, problem solving, complex thought, and language.

The highly flexible and cooperative nature of play may provide a richer and more interesting field to study metacognition in animals than indecision does – but play is also a lot more difficult to quantify than uncertainty is, and that, of course, makes it more complicated to study.

Social pretend play has been said to require the ability to understand both what reality is and also when it is breached: the ability to distinguish appearance from reality. These proponents suggest that participants must recognize what counts as play, must in some sense know what is real and what is not, and must have the ability to move in and out of these states. Markers within play ensure that the players continue to understand that it is only pretend. These include “attenuation or exaggeration” of play behaviors that also might appear outside of play, and expressions such as smiling and laughter.

When we play we purposefully put behavior out of context. Doing this requires imagination, creativity and complex communication skills. Dogs not only communicate with each other about what is and is not play behavior; they also demonstrate the ability to understand whether or not their playmates are paying attention. Dogs display wonderfully sophisticated play behavior – they take turns and engage in self-handicapping; behaviors that appear to require them to imagine what their playmates are thinking.

It’s wonderful that something as poetic and beautiful as play may help us understand metacognition in animals. Because of their uniquely strong tie to Home sapiens, dogs may be the ideal animal species to study the connections between sapience and play. According to an article in the March 2000 issue of New Scientist:

Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado has studied how dogs, wolves and coyotes play. “All animals learn certain codes of conduct about their own species’ morality through play,” he says. “I think dogs learn codes of conduct from humans through dog/human play.” They learn the ground rules for acceptable behaviour, such as how hard they can bite without harming. And, like any animal, when dogs play, they hone the behaviours they will need elsewhere.

There is little research into the evolutionary effects of such interactions between dogs and humans, but Bekoff suspects that they have enriched the mental life of dogs. A study in his lab reveals that playful interactions between puppies are much more varied than those between young wolves or coyotes. He thinks dogs have evolved more varied forms of behaviour because of the sophisticated games people play with their pets and the selection for dogs that are good at such games. “It would feed over into other areas,” says Bekoff. “In general ways it would make the dog more cognitive.”

Living and playing with us may have made dogs smarter. Perhaps it made us a little smarter too…

January 24, 2010 at 10:54 pm 1 comment

Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism and Myth

“We shall be forever disappointed in psychology if we insist on one true, final way to conceptualize the nature of the mind.” 
Douglas Candland

A lot of the power of myth lies in its ability to help us describe, clarify and share difficult concepts and situations.  The personal and cultural narratives of myth give us a kind of intellectual shorthand to process ideas that are otherwise difficult to imagine or explain.

Myth is a vital part of psychoanalysis. The psychoanalyst helps his patient create a myth that explains the basis of his problem. The myths created in therapy don’t need to be true; they just need to help the patient reframe his problem in an adaptive way. The value of psychoanalytical constructs lies not in their truth but in their utility.

Behaviorism is rooted in the precepts of Morgan’s canon*.  Radical behaviorists reject the use of any data that cannot be strictly defined, measured and tabulated. One of the basic premises of radical behaviorism is that the study of behavior should be conducted as a natural science (like chemistry and physics) and that behaviorists should avoid references to un-measureable inner states of organisms. The behaviorist’s focus is on the conditioning processes that affect behavior not the mind that engages in it. 

Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, focuses on understanding the un-measureable, un-definable unconscious motivations that drive behavior.  It’s the philosophical opposite of of behaviorism.

So… why is it that so many who describe themselves as “dog behaviorists”** take an approach to problem-solving that could best be described as the psychoanalysis of our pets?  While focusing (often obsessively) on the Skinnerian behaviorism of stimulus-response, a disturbing number also seem to feel compelled to engage in creating complex myths to explain why Rover humps the kids and the cat pees outside its box.

Psychoanalysis is based on the construction of myth – behaviorism on the reduction of behavior to causative elements.  And putting these two, disparate ideas together to treat animals just doesn’t make sense. In “Feral Children and Clever Animals  Douglas Candland wrote, “The Freudian analysis of the mind is an analysis of the human mind, not the animal mind, for as encompassing as the theory is, psychoanalytic explanations demand the use of language for use as data.”

Psychoanalysis is for language-using, narrative-dependent human minds – not for animal minds. 


Your dog doesn’t belong on a therapist’s couch.  He doesn’t use or need myths to make sense of his world.  General associative ideas centered on context and previous experiences are far more important to him than even very simple, image-based narrative ideas are. Your dog doesn’t create stories about the world to help him put things into context for future processing – he’s an existentialist.  He lives in the moment.

Perhaps the biggest problems in taking a psychoanalytical approach to dog behavior problems is that in most cases the myths we create to explain our dogs’ behavior problems are based on our hopes, our fears, and our umwelt – not the dog’s.   This wouldn’t be a problem if, like the myths employed in psychoanalysis, the narratives created by the behaviorist and dog owner helped reframe the dog’s issues in a way that led to a solution. But this often isn’t the case.  Unfortunately we have a strong human tendency to look for absolution before we look for explanation.  And our dogs suffer needlessly because of it.

I believe that we do a better job of helping dogs work through their problems when we leave myth out of the mix. As dog owners and trainers we should strive to dispassionately observe and assess the context, history and evolution of the problem without framing it some kind of unneccessarily complicated backstory.  Avoid the complex narrative explanations your human mind craves and focus your energy on following a general approach to rehabilitation that you can change and refine as needed.  Don’t let some myth of the dog’s previous existence – whether real or imagined – stand in the way of finding the approach your dog needs to heal and move ahead.

Your dog doesn’t need to understand his problems. He just needs you to create a path he can use to walk out of them. 

*          “In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes, if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.” 

**        According to the Animal Behavior Association: “There is no standard terminology for describing people who help with animal behavior problems. Titles such as animal behaviorist, applied animal behaviorist, pet behavior counselor or animal behavior consultant are all used by people doing this sort of work. At present, there is no licensure for these titles so anyone can call themselves an animal behaviorist, etc. with no training or experience in the field.”

April 17, 2009 at 7:03 pm 10 comments

Abstract Rewards and Other Minds

(Yesterday I posted about a fascinating article in Seed Magazine on dopamine, artificial intelligence and social learning.  This is the second post inspired by that article.  It may make more sense if you read yesterday’s post first.)

Humans are odd creatures. We often prefer the fulfillment of abstract ideas to concrete rewards. In the words of Read Montague as quoted by Jonah Lehrer of Seed Magazine:

“What other animal goes on hunger strike? Or abstains from sex? Or blows itself up in a cafe in the name of God?”

We find abstract ideals highly rewarding because our brains use the same kinds of processes to evaluate implicit / abstract ideas and explicit / concrete factors.  The mind uses neuronal firing rates to compare the relative merits of the options we are faced with.  If the abstract idea excites our neurons more than the concrete one, we prefer it.  According to Montague:

That’s what makes ideas so powerful: No matter how esoteric or ethereal they get, they are ultimately fed back into the same system that makes us want sex and sugar.

Montague believes that human beings are the only animals that chase ideas instead of primary rewards.  That we are the only species that will go so far as to  reject a concrete reward in lieu of pursueing an abstract goal.  I’m not sure I agree.

Montague bases this idea of the intrinsic value of chasing abstract rewards partly on a simple economic game called the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” where receiving the maximum reward for all players requires strangers to trust each other.  The rules of the game allow one selfish player to reap more than his “fair” share of the reward and break the bond of trust.  Montague was able to predict several seconds in advance when a player would defect by monitoring his caudate nucleus because activity there would decrease.

The caudate nucleus consists of a pair of C-shaped structures of the striatum.  They contain input neurons for voluntary control of movement and are vital in learning, trust, memory and pleasure systems — and have been referred to as one of the reward centers of the brain.  There is some evidence that the caudate is also important in developing self-control and falling in love.  But it’s the caudate’s importance in trust-feedback loops and abstract reward systems that interest us here.

We’ve wondered for a long time why cooperation exists in man and other animals.  Especially in cases where it doesn’t result in concrete or immediate rewards. Trust is the basis of altruistic cooperation – and cooperation is something that dogs excel at.

Species like dogs, wolves and humans who cooperate to survive need to have mental processes that allow them to tell the difference between cheaters and cooperators.  Understanding the rules that govern the expression, repayment and betrayal of trust are vital when you live a social, cooperative life because they form the basis of things like reciprocity, reconciliation, consolation, conflict intervention, and social signaling.

Trust is the foundation of a healthy social fabric — but how do we learn to trust?  Are social species like humans and dogs born with an innate capacity to trust, or do we have to learn how to do it?  According to Montague, we are born with the capacity to trust, but we need to learn who to trust and how much to trust them:

But what exactly is the caudate computing? How do we decide whom to trust with our money? And why do we sometimes decide to stop trusting those people? It turned out that the caudate worked just like the reward cells in the monkey brain. At first the caudate didn’t get excited until the subjects actually trusted one another and garnered their separate rewards. But over time this brain area started to expect trust, so that it fired long before the reward actually arrived. Of course, if the bond was broken — if someone cheated and stole money — then the neurons stopped firing; social assumptions were proven wrong. 

It appears that once our brains learn to trust, we find the reinforcement of that trust highly rewarding.  It feels good when our beliefs are validated.  It feels bad when our expectations of trust or reward are violated.  And that’s a good thing because it’s the contrast between these two situations that lets us learn complex things.  So, yesterday we discussed the fact that mistakes are a vital part of learning and now today we find that having our trust and expectations violated is an important component as well.  Now it makes perfect sense that moderate levels of stress can be conducive to learning.

Trust and empathy give us insights into the minds of others.  These capacities not only allow us to live with other animals in a rich social fabric; learning how to accurately predict how others will interact with us may also have sent us the first tentative steps down the road to having a theory of mind.

March 11, 2009 at 12:14 am Leave a comment

A Mechanism for Culture and Morals in Dogs?

Last month’s breaking story that researchers had demonstrated that dogs detect and respond to incentive inequities may have been big news to some on the interwebs, but the idea that dogs make moral judgements wasn’t news to most dog lovers.

Moral judgements can be defined as evaluations of the actions or character of another made with respect to applicable cultural values. Moral reasoning is the set of conscious, intentional, narrative mental processes that most philosophers and scientsts have have historically believed were used to transform available information into moral judgements.

This rationalist approach says that we arrive at moral judgements primarily through a process of deliberation and reason. Moral emotions like sympathy and indignation affect the process but have supporting rather than controlling roles. In the rationalist model we methodically weigh issues of harm, justice and fairness in our minds before making moral judgements.

But… if moral reasoning is a purely (or even mostly) explicit, cognitive process based on mental narrative we shouldn’t expect to find it in dogs, apes, bees or mole rats — should we?


In philosophy the conflict between reason and emotion was originally seen as that between the divine and the animal. Our deeply rooted prejudice that reason and narrative must rule over emotion and perception predates Cartesian dualism and Rousseau’s noble savage. And, to some extent, it continues to exist because  reason and narrative are a whole lot easier to study than emotion and intuition are.

If we toss some of those deep-seated rationalist prejudices aside and consider the idea that implicit, intuitive, emotional processes may play a much greater role in our moral judgement making than generally accepted — it might help us explain how dogs and mole rats could have the capacity to make moral judgements.

The social intuitionist model introduced by Jonathan Haidt in 2001 proposes that we employ subconscious perceptual and intuitive processes to make moral judgements, then create our rationalizations for these judgements after we’ve made them.

What?  Haidt is saying we don’t use logical and reason to evaluate the moral quandaries we find ourselves embroiled in until after we’ve made judgements? Yup. That’s exactly what he’s saying.  And if he’s right, when we make the smug assumption that our moral positions are based on logic, facts and reason (and that the positions of those who disagree with us are based on little more than mindless ideology and self-interest) —  we are, at least — half right!

Is there really any meat to the social intuitionist model? Well one bit of evidence supporting the model is studies that have shown that our emotional and affective reactions to moral issues are far better predictors of our judgement than our rational evaluation of the potential harm or good associated with those issues.  But, you’re saying — if we really do make moral judgements in a largely intuitive way, why does it feel like we’re making them in a logical way? Well, maybe because the mental efforts we engage in in creating those post hoc rationalizations feel like introspection.  They are, after all, similar processes. Cognitively speaking, searching for the memory of a narrative, judgemental process isn’t much different from looking for the plausible arguments we can use to defend our judgements. Add to that the fact that these processes occur so quickly in our minds that they’re hard to consciously differentiate and the fact that they are, of course,  correlatively linked and it becomes very difficult to say whether the rational chicken or the intuitive egg came first.

So — what are the mental mechanics behind the social intuitionist model? Dual process models state that two different cognitive processes function together when we make judgements and solve problems. Implicit processes occur quickly, effortlessly, unconsciously and automatically (they are the basis of intuition and perception).  Explicit, rational processes are slower, require more effort and are, at least in some ways, accessible to our conscious mind. These two sets of processes  operate in parallel – but they can sometimes come to different conclusions. The implicit processes evolved before the rational ones did, they arise earlier in ontogeny, they’re triggered sooner in decision-making activities and (except in psychopaths) they have a more powerful and lasting hold on our minds when the two processes conflict.  And — conveniently for us, they’re also believed to govern most of what goes on in animal minds.

So now we’ve made the link back to animal minds. Historically, most scientists and philosophers have believed that animals weren’t capable of making moral judgements or having a code of ethics. These ideas were supported by the rationalist view that moral judgements were based on reason and narrative. The social intuitionist model, on the other hand paw, provides a plausible mechanism for morality to occur in animals.

But why would animals need to be able to make moral judgements?

Haidt proposes that a sense of morality is evolutionarily adaptive for intensely social species. Remember, moral judgements are evaluations of the actions or character of others made with respect to applicable cultural values. When you’re a social species, it’s good highly adaptive to have mental processes that allow you not just to tell friends from enemies, but also to be able to differentiate between cheaters and those who cooperate with you. And while dogs, apes and mole rats may not be capable of creating the kind of culture that includes opera or ice hockey, their societies do have sets of rules and mores that govern behavior. These prescriptive rules (which cover things like reciprocity in food sharing, reconciliation, consolation, conflict intervention, and mediation) are  those that individual members learn to respect through active reinforcement by the group at large. And they are an important part of the cultural basis of social morality in humans too.

So, take a group of animals that live in a social setting. Give them a set of rules that not only govern interactions but also, conveniently, provide a basis for making value judgements about others. Add the implicit, intuitive, emotional processes that may form the basis for creating moral judgements — and you’ve got the parts you need for simple culture and moral systems to evolve.

Now the idea that dogs are capable of recognizing and responding to incentive inequities (i.e., fairness) makes perfect sense.

While dogs and mole rats may have simple moral systems, it’s important to keep in mind that these moral systems must be very different from ours. Not only are they based on different cultural value systems but they’re also operating on different cognitive and perceptive hardware.  While your dog may be able to make and understand simple moral judgements, unlike you, he as absolutely no desire (and probably little or no ability) to rationalize or justify his moral judgements.

The social intuitionist model might help explain why dogs and other animals seem to live in the moment.  An event happens, they process it quickly and intuitively, react accordingly and then just get on with their lives. They’re not bothered by that annoying (and sometimes pointlessly socially complicating) process of   rationalization and justification.  The model might also help dog trainers like me explain to pet owners why FiFi craps on their pillow through stress and displacement, not to exact revenge for some past slight.

January 3, 2009 at 6:30 pm 6 comments

Pavlov’s – Bacterium?

Off to school!

Off to school!

Ding! Ding! Ding!  More good stuff on theories of mind and classical conditioning.  From MIT Technology Review:

A century after Pavlov’s dog first salivated at the sound of a bell, researchers are saying that single-celled organisms such as bacteria can be “trained” to react in a similar way. Rather than use complex networks of nerve cells, or neurons, bacteria can “learn” to associate one stimulus with another by employing molecular circuits, according to a multidisciplinary team from Germany, Holland, and the United Kingdom.

What? Bacteria LEARNING? Well – according to Daniel Dennett, even an object as simple as a thermostat can, in a way, be said to have certain types of ‘beliefs’ about the world.  Dennett doesn’t believe that a thermostat is conscious. But he does think that, in certain ways, its behavior can’t be distinguished from beliefs.   When considered purely with respect to its specific function, a thermostat could be said to “believe” a room is too cold, and then react by turning the boiler on. Of course, that thermostat doesn’t have a mind, but it does have a purpose, function and design that allow it to react predictably within a specific set of circumstances and conditions. Kind-of like a bacterium.

We humans often attribute feelings or intentions metaphorically to non-human objects.  It is convenient for us to adopt the intentional stance when trying to understand human beings, so we try to conserve energy by using it to understand non-human ones too.  But – when we try to understand thermometers – or bacteria – at the level of the intentional stance, giving them beliefs about basic aspects of their worlds and ascribing them the ‘desire’ to perform specific functions, do we assume an increased risk of error by extrapolating too broadly?

The mechanisms responsible for controlling behavior vary widely across species – and many actions that are indistinguishable from conscious behavior are observed in the animal and electronic worlds.  A mind allows us to perceive environmental stimuli and react adaptively to them by anticipating predictable events. A bimetallic strip allows a thermostat to perceive temperature changes and react to them as well. And in much the same way, biochemical reactions can act like a bacterium’s brain.

Dennett proposes three levels of abstraction (or stances) with respect to behavior. These are the physical, design and intentional stances.  The physical stance is the level at which we are concerned with properties like mass, energy, velocity, and chemical composition.  The design stance focuses on purpose, function and design. The intentional stance is the level where we consider things in terms of beliefs, thinking and (of course) intent.

As with Pavlov’s dog and all other examples of associative learning, the bacteria in the model learn to build stronger associations between the two stimuli the more they occur together. The Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb established an underlying explanation back in 1945. Now called Hebbian learning, it’s often expressed as a situation in which “neurons that fire together wire together.” In the hungry dog’s case, nerve cells triggered by the smell of food started to make physical links with the nerve cells simultaneously triggered by the sound of a bell. According to Hebb’s theory, the more often the two stimuli are applied at the same time, the greater the link or “synaptic weight” between them.

Bacteria, of course, don’t have synapses or nerve cells. Nonetheless, there are indications that single-celled organisms can learn. In the 1970s, Todd Hennessey claimed that paramecia, the single-celled pond dweller, could be conditioned in the lab. He electrocuted them and associated this with a buzzer. Following the simultaneous exposure to the buzzer and to electric currents, he claimed that the paramecia swam away from the buzzer when they had not done so before. The finding was never properly reproduced, but it raised the intriguing possibility that some sort of associated learning was possible for single-cell life forms.

“Mind” blowing.

Eva Jablonka, a theoretical biologist at Tel-Aviv University and a leading researcher in the field, agrees. “This is conceptually a bit difficult,” she says, “but if you look at the definition of learning–because of something happening, you have some kind of physical traces, and this changes the threshold of the response in the future–then this is what you have here.” She adds, “I think that it is a good and potentially very useful paper, and I think they do demonstrate associative learning.”

Think that’s cool?  There’s even more.  If you or your dog learn something – or even if you develop a conditioned association to a stimulus, that specific bit of “knowledge” is yours and yours alone.  But… it seems that bacteria may be capable of passing their associative learning on to their offspring (probably because they reproduce by binary fission instead of that messy sexual reproduction).

Significantly, Fernando estimates that the changes induced in the bacteria could easily persist for the 30-minute life cycle of an E. coli bacterium. This would make the changes, or “learning,” heritable. This is an especially important point when it comes to medical applications for trained bacterium. “After all, diseases or drug doses are going to last longer than 30 minutes,” notes Jablonka.

The trick would be to train bacteria to recognize chemical processes in the body that are associated with danger. This might be an adverse and dangerous reaction to a drug, or to the presence of tumor cells, indicating that a medicine in the system needs to be activated in certain tissues.

Smart bacteria and inheritable learning. Do you suppose we can develop a bacterium that will inoculate us to forgetfulness?

October 24, 2008 at 3:45 am 1 comment

The Canine Moral Compass

A study recently published in New Scientist may change the way some view our dogs’ cognitive abilities.

Historically most scientists have believed that those of us who think our dogs are emotional, rational beings were being foolishly anthropomorphic.  That dismissive view has been challenged by recent studies that provide evidence that 10,000 years of co-evolution at our side has had a remarkable effect on our dogs cognitive abilities.

According to the Telegraph:

Although still controversial, recent research is beginning to support the view that an owner is perfectly correct when they pat their pet and coo “who’s a clever boy then?”

Because of the way owners have selected smarter and more empathic dogs down the generations, these pets now appear to have a limited “theory of mind”, the capacity that enables us to understand the desires, motivations and intentions of others, New Scientist reports today.

Studies from institutions in Hungary, Austria, Japan and the United Kingdom presented at the first Canine Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary presented different lines of evidence that dogs have an innate sense of right versus wrong, that they understand the idea of equity and that they have the ability to understand the desires, motivations and intentions of others.

Besides being interesting science — this research brings two important ideas to my mind.  Ideas not mentioned in any of the articles on the studies that I read.

The first is that, if we consider that our dogs have an understanding of right versus wrong, we must realize that a dog’s ideas about right and wrong are not necessarily (and in fact, are not likely) the same as our own.  Many of our human expectations for dogs spring from an unnatural modern human cultural ideal, not from the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer one we and our dogs originally emerged from. 

Next we must realize that because ideas about right and wrong are, to a large degree, cultural, it is our responsibility to instill the right kinds of cultural values in our dogs through training.  Sadly, far too many people today refuse to accept the responsibility of teaching their dogs right from wrong.  And when we forsake that responsiblity, it is our dogs who suffer the consequences.


In an interesting tangent, I just finished reading Power and Innocence  by Rollo May.  May believed that we are so obsessed with the idea of the misuse of power that the word itself has gained a strong negative connotation. Power is too often and too strongly correlated with coercive force.  Ironically, much more often it is powerlessness that leads to the impotence and apathy that foster aggression.  “Deeds of violence in our society are performed largely by those trying to establish their self-esteem, to defend their self-image, and to demonstrate that they too are significant.” 

According to May, recognizing and acknowledging our sense of power leads to a sense of responsibility, if on the other hand, we deny our power, we have no need to accept responsibility. And one of the most important places in our lives where we need to responsibly exercise power and authority is in raising our children and our pets. 

As children and puppies grow, they sometimes seek out conflict or opposition in order to practice self-assertion.  This is a natural thing.  It’s part of growing up.  But if in their seeking, they do not find fair and measurable boundaries – if we do not exert our power and authority over them – they will feel lost. 

The sense of being lost arises because this seeking for boundaries is how we (human and canine) develop our moral compasses — the implicit and unspoken rules that define the boundaries of our lives together.

This mapping out of boundaries takes time.  Anyone who’s raised a child understands this.  We spend thousands of hours of time with our children patiently explaining the whys and whos and whats and wherefores of life. So why then, do so many of us expect our dogs to spring forth from their dam’s womb not only understanding complete sentences in English, but also being pre-programmed with an innate understanding of the rules and rites and oddities of our day to day lives?

Back in June I attended a workshop put on by Kayce Cover.  The thing that struck me most about her work is how strongly it resembles the instructional interactions between a parent and child.  She demonstrated targeting skills by naming and touching different body parts.  She taught motor commands partly by encouraging copy cat behavior while naming actions. It was like watching a gifted, charming and somewhat odd preschool teacher work with dogs and horses instead of toddlers.  Brilliant.

So why is it that, in a time when many of us refer to our dogs as ‘kids’, that we do not make this kind of effort in explaining the world to them?  Have we become so terrified of our own power that we cannot accept the sobering responsibility of simply being able to say no?

August 26, 2008 at 3:04 am 1 comment

Stanley Coren on Dog Intelligence

What do dogs know? How smart are they? Are dogs conscious? Do they have feelings like we do?


 In a recent interview with Alex Tsakiris of http://www.skeptiko.comDr. Stanley Coren stated that dogs’ cognitive powers are roughly equivalent to those of two to three year old human children.  Dogs solve problems, respond to language and play games in much the same way that toddlers do.  We all assume that young children have consciousness.  So doesn’t it seem logical to also assume that dogs have it as well?

 Charles Darwin believed that all aspects of mental life, including consciousness, exist along a continuum. He also recognized that animal consciousness is not the same as human consciousness.  Psychologists understand that very young children are conscious, but they don’t experience a full repertoire of emotions until they’re five or six years old.  Considering this, it may make sense to study animal consciousness by using some of the same techniques commonly employed in studying very young children.

 In doing this, we should also keep in mind that dogs and children are equipped with different kinds of intelligence, consciousness, sensory processing and other cognitive functions.  So, while a dog’s problem solving abilities are similar to a two-year old human child’s – your dog very decidedly does NOT have all the same emotional, sensory and cognitive powers that a two-year old does, and vice-versa.

 In other words, YOUR DOG IS NOT A FUR-BABY!

 For example, your dog’s social consciousness is much closer to a teenager’s than a toddler’s.  The dog is more interested in questions like who’s trying to move up in the pack and who’s sleeping with who than a toddler is.  The dog is probably less interested in music and television than the toddler is. In addition, the dog also has different physical and sensory skills than the toddler does.

 Toddlers don’t experience emotions the same way that adults do, but they do share all our basic emotions: fear, anger, surprise, happiness, sadness, etc.  What they don’t yet have are the learned emotions like guilt, which don’t show up until about four to five years of age.   

 Given this information, it makes no sense to ascribe things like infinite wisdom or infinite empathy to dogs.  Remember, their emotional makeup is similar to that of a two or three year old child, and it seems safe to say that toddlers do not have those qualities.

To read the complete transcript of the interview or download a podcast go to:

March 9, 2008 at 5:42 am 3 comments

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


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