Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A dog's mind

There's a really good article on Slate about how dogs think. It questions the assumption most people make that dogs think even remotely similarly to humans, pointing out that dogs are existential beings. It tells the story of a woman who went back to work after being at home for several years, and the troubles she experienced when her dog started destroying her home after she went back to work.

"Everybody says the dog was reacting to her going back to work," I suggested.

"Everybody is probably wrong," was his blunt comeback. "It's 'theory of mind.' This is what often happens when humans assume that dogs think the way we do."

His analysis: "Being angry at the human and behaving punitively--that's not a thought sequence even remotely possible, given a dog's brain. The likely scenario is that the dog is simply frightened." When Heather was home, she was there to explain and enforce the rules. With her gone, the dog literally didn't know how to behave. The dog should have been acclimated to a crate or room and confined more, not less, until she got used to her new independence.

Lots of dogs get nervous when they don't know what's expected of them, and when they get anxious, they can also grow restless. Blue hadn't had to occupy time alone before. Dogs can get unnerved by this. They bark, chew, scratch, destroy. Getting yelled at and punished later doesn't help: The dog probably knows it's doing something wrong, but it has no idea what. Since there's nobody around to correct behaviors when the dog is alone, how could the dog know which behavior is the problem? Which action was wrong?

He made sense to me. Dogs are not aware of time, even as a concept, so Blue couldn't know whether she was being left for five minutes or five hours, or how that compared to being left for a movie two weeks earlier. Since she had no conscious notion that Heather's work life had changed, how could she get angry, let alone plot vengeance?

The rest of the article can be found here.

I think the recently-beginning shift in the way we think about our pets is an important one. So many animals are needlessly subjected to punishments that are simply inappropriate, because they're based on assumptions that dogs have a much more complex understanding of time and motivation than they actually do. It's not to say that dogs are stupid, or incapable of reason--far from it--just that they don't experience time the way we do, and are much more likely to respond to immediate operant or classical conditioning than to training that nebulously rewards good behaviors and punishes bad ones.

It's something I have a lot of strong feelings and opinions about.

15 Comments:

At October 11, 2005 4:47 PM, Blogger mg said...

I get the same way when I see people screaming at their toddlers in a grocery store.

The majority of people just can't be bothered with finding a healthy communication base. It is automatically assumed that dogs (and cats) don't communicate because they don't speak. When the real issue is that humans don't listen to what they are being told very clearly... some humans can't be bothered.

*sigh*

 
At October 11, 2005 7:32 PM, Blogger H-Train said...

So I managed to find your blog somehow... and it's really entertaining. I just thought I'd let you know so I wouldn't feel like a creep. You're a really good writer.

 
At October 11, 2005 7:36 PM, Blogger Mary said...

Hi J. Star... Just stopping in quickly to leave my link for you again, per your request. :)
We're moving this weekend so I won't be back in the blogging world for a week or so. Catch up with you later.

- Mary @ Elsewhere

 
At October 11, 2005 8:45 PM, Blogger cmhl said...

I definitely feel that pets communicate, granted, in a different way. but they do communicate.

I had a beagle for 11 years named Roo, that was extremely intuitive. She could seriously sense my moods, and behave accordingly.

 
At October 11, 2005 10:37 PM, Anonymous Heather said...

First things first... that information makes complete sense and I'm with you on the needless and definitely inappropriate punishments.

That said, it's so much more fun to think that animals think and act along the same lines that we do. :)

 
At October 12, 2005 12:07 AM, Blogger suleyman said...

"Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit."
~Neruda

-Suley

 
At October 12, 2005 7:53 AM, Blogger Christian said...

I have learned more from my dogs about myself and the way I perceive the world around me in the past four years than any amount of time in school could have taught me. Great post!

 
At October 12, 2005 9:00 AM, Blogger Jen said...

It's a classic way of thinking- you leave the house, the dog pees in it somewhere to "get back" at you. It's easier to think that your dog is being vengeful than to think he/she is scared and doesn't know how to react. But I agree in the article in that a dog is just frightened and doesn't know how to act... except that then my dog will pull of a thoughtful and crafted scheme later that night, leading me to believe he very well does know what he's doing at all times and has it all dooped.

But I love my baby and for the most part, he's always good. And when he's not, we don't get mad at him. There's something about a greyhound that just keep the anger off the radar screen.

 
At October 12, 2005 9:02 AM, Blogger Jen said...

I meant "us all dooped" in that last comment.

 
At October 12, 2005 10:55 AM, Blogger funny thing said...

I've got a dog that can do small jobs around the house, like hoovering and grouting the bathroom.
I criticised her gloss work the other day, just as she was finishing off the skirting-boards and she went right out the front door and let the air out my car tyres.
Call me old-fashioned but I reckon she was taking the piss.

Anyhow, we made it up last night over a glass of Chardonnay and an After Eight mint. How we laughed... ;-)

 
At October 13, 2005 12:58 PM, Blogger Sangroncito said...

I am so glad Amber brought her dog to Brazil. We were all worried if he would make it alive (he's ten years old)...24 hours in the air, 3 flights, 2 different airlines..but he arrived in great shape and I love having him...a dog makes a house a home.

 
At October 14, 2005 4:30 AM, Blogger Allan said...

Arf, arf! Grrrrr....




Pant.....

 
At October 14, 2005 5:58 PM, Blogger Mr. H.K. said...

I raised my doggie with only positive behavior support. I ignored the behavior I didn't like, and reinforced the behavior that was good... I got me one very well adjusted doggie!

;)

Cheers,

Mr. H.K.
Postcards from Hell's Kitchen
And I Quote Blog

 
At October 21, 2005 5:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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I have a litter box training dog blog. It pretty much covers litter box training dog related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)

 
At October 21, 2005 11:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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