Posts tagged ‘umwelt’

Playing With a Dog


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.

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

Doolittle V. 2.0?

Csaba Molnár from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary and his research team have developed a computer program to analyze dog barks.  The computer input (i.e. barking samples) came from 14 Hungarian Mudi sheepdogs.  The dog’s vocalizations were recorded in six different situations: ‘stranger’, ‘fight’, ‘walk’, ‘alone’, ‘ball,’ and ‘play’; in an attempt to learn more about the nuances of auditory communication in dogs.

The software correctly classified new barks in less than half of the samples. The highest rates of correlation were obtained with the alert type barks for ‘fight’ and ‘stranger’, and the worst in correctly identifying ‘play’ barks.

Although I find this work interesting, I admit that I found it odd that the focus of the study was vocal communication.  In my experience, vocal or auditory communication is not the primary way that dogs communicate with each other – or with us.  I suspect that scent is the primary sense they use in communication with each other and vision (as in use of body language) is the primary sense they use to communicate with us.

Human beings are excessively verbal animals.  When we aren’t talking out loud we’re usually carrying on an internal verbal dialog with ourselves.  This excessive use of verbal language is a uniquely human trait.  So is this study just a bit of well-intentioned but misplaced anthropomorphism that accomplished little more than the creation of a more accurate version of the Bowlingual?

Can we talk?

According to Roger Abrantes, PhD, “Communication between man and dog requires the use of accurate signals the dog is able to understand. When choosing signals we may need to think as a dog to understand how the dog will decode them.  Yet, we can only have an approximate idea of the dog’s world of signals, its semiosphere.”

The dog’s semiosphere is the stimuli, signs, mind, communications and culture he exists in with the one he is communicating with – sometimes also referred to as ‘shared umwelt’. The semiosphere is a wonderfully complex realm that includes not only perception from the sense of scent, sight, sound, touch and kinaesthesis; but also all of our life’s experiences.

Taking a single piece of the semiotic equation and separating it from the whole to analyze it, seems to me to be a bit like trying to understand the Earth’s ecosystems solely through a study of the chemistry of water. 

phoneme is the smallest unit of human speech that can be differentiated.  To the dog, a bark likey provides a similar function – that of a minor part of his lexicon.  Without being considered in conjunction with the various body postures the dog makes as it barks, it makes no more sense in isolation than the isolated sound ‘hey’ would to us.

If I say “Hey” as I jump up and down, and wave my arms with an excited look on my face; it means an utterly different thing than it does if I say “Hey” as I cock my head slightly to one side, smile, and wink at you.  If I live on a farm I might say “Hey” as I look at you and point toward the loft, indicating that that’s what you should feed the steers tonight, or I could say “Hey” with little associated expression just to answer your question regarding what I’ll plant in the south 40 this year.

In trying to understand what my dog means when he says “Hey,” not only do I need to put that sound into context – combining it with the situation the dog is in and the postures and expressions he expresses as he barks; but I also need to consider that my dog’s umwelt, his accumulated life’s perceptions and experiences, are very different from mine.

If you’d like to learn more about the idea of the umwelt, the world around a living being as the creature experiences it, read “The View From The Oak” by Judith and Herbert Kohl.  Even though the book was written for older children, its a fascinating and well-written book, even for adult readers.  If you want to dig deeper, the article where Jakob vonUexkull originally coined the term umwelt and described the idea in detail is available in “Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept” edited by Claire Schiller.

“When observing animals we must try to give ourselves over to their experience and imagine worlds as foreign as any that can be found in novels or science fiction. … To become close to other worlds means giving up our own for a while” 

          Judith and Herbert Kohl, “The View From The Oak

January 17, 2008 at 5:39 am Leave a comment

Fur-Kids or Kindred Spirits?

Humans have always felt a strong kinship with animals.  Our ancestors believed that animals were aware and that their lives and communications were as meaningful as ours.  They were better able than we are to find meaning in subtle nuances of animal behavior because their survival depended on it – and because they saw animals as kindred spirits who understood the world in a different way than they did. 


Today most humans live in an environment far removed from the one our ancestors’ relied on for their survival, and most of us find it more difficult to recognize and understand the deeper meaning underlying animal behavior than our ancestors did.  We still feel a strong connection to animals, but changes in our environment and cultures have drastically changed the way we experience that connection.  Instead of seeing animals as kindred spirits with different perspectives and ways of life, many of us now think of them as amusing copies of our human selves.  Animals as kindred spirits, guides, teachers and partners have given way to fur-kids wearing designer dog coats.


This common, excessively anthropomorphized view may be part of the reason why many behaviorists and sociobiologists believe that assigning human, or human-like emotions and intentions to animals is a scientific taboo (as it has been since the time of Descartes).  But in a recent reversal, instead of denying the similarities between us, some scientists are studying how the emotions, modes of communication and motivations of animals do, in many ways, resemble our own.

The problem is not that we anthropomorphize, but that we tend to do it in the wrong ways. 

If we view anthropomorphism as a means, rather than an end, and use it to study the ways that animal behavior resembles human behavior we may gain valuable insights.  Research on the qualities that we share with them may help us better understand the areas where their perspectives differ from ours.  If, on the other hand, we adopt anthropomorphism as an end in itself, we simply stop at assigning human values and motivations to animals.  And when we do this, not only do we lose an incredible opportunity to expand our horizons, but we condemn them to a life and a set of expectations that they can never meet or be fully content with.

“So many baffling aspect of animal behavior are like that – baffling only because we fail to appreciate that the animal’s range of senses is not the same as our own: different but not always inferior.”  Hans Brick “The Nature of the Beast

January 5, 2008 at 8:18 pm Leave a comment

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


Copyright notice

All original content on this Web site is copyright © on the date of publication by this author. All rights reserved except, of course, that others may quote from original content under the 'Fair Use' provisions of US copyright law.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 284 other subscribers

RSS New Stuff in our Library

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

Top Clicks

  • None
Top Dog Blog
Featured in Alltop


Add to Technorati Favorites
Dog Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory
blogarama - the blog directory
Blog Directory
Blog Directory & Search engine
March 2023