The importance of philosophical research on love and dogs

Examining the relationship between love and science about dogs brings me joy, and it provides tools for deciphering how social values influence a wide range of scientific projects.

Before I started thinking about dogs all the time, my philosophical research focused on sexism and racism in science and engineering. I love working on canine science, but occasionally I get a guilty tickle in the back of my mind suggesting that I’m shirking my responsibilities, that I should be fighting for justice instead of fooling around with love.

I stamp those twinges down though, because love is important.

Earlier this year I spoke on a science ethics panel along with two men—one presenting research on the dangers artificial intelligence and the other talking about flaws in medical research. When I stood up and started talking about love and dogs and science, I noticed a few sideways glances from some of the very serious folks in the audience.

I didn’t have to work hard to imagine them sighing and shaking their heads, ‘those ladies, always going on about feelings.’ Or, ‘Just what I was looking forward to, an academic chick flick.’

Undaunted, I smiled and kept talking. I held the ground between those very serious people and the door, and they had nothing to do except listen.

After the AI man, the medical research man, and I, the loves dogs woman, finished our talks we fielded questions from the audience. It became apparent during the question period that both of these guys’ research could benefit from the ethical model (Nancy Tuana’s Ethical Dimensions of Scientific Research) I was using to understand the impact of love on canine behavior research.

I study how love influences the interactions among (1) social values, (2) research ethics, and (3) the kinds of scientific questions, methods, and analyses that researchers use. It turns out that understanding the relationships among these three things is just as important for conducting effective medical research and creating ethical AI as it is for understanding how dogs think. And it was just these sorts of interactions that the other members of the panel needed to consider in order to move their research projects forward.

Loves Dogs Woman to the rescue! 😛

Joy

Joy is an accomplishment.

It seems like a mean joke that the Third Sunday of Advent, Joy Sunday, comes at the darkest time of the year. It should be Despair Sunday, Desolation Sunday, Despondency Sunday. Joy? On the longest night of the year, I am generally short on joy.

Unless, Joy Sunday symbolizes not what comes easiest, but what we need most. Highlighting a need, though, can be cruel without also providing some guidance about how to fulfill it. How do I get me some Joy?

Milo meets this need of mine both directly and metaphorically.

Joy is more than an 11 on the happiness meter. It is a way of being in the world. Milo is joyful. He inhabits his world in a way that invites and radiates happiness. He expects and offers unconditional love. His universe is comprised of toys and snacks, frolicking friends, learning new things, cuddles, and comfy spots to nap. Things happen between breakfast and playtime, but it is breakfast and playtime that get most of his attention. Milo has his demons, but he is quick to respond to good things around him. His cup overfloweth.

In a sense, he is built for Joy. His temperament includes really high drives for food and prey and those drives have very low thresholds. That means that he loves to eat, and loves to chase and will do either at the drop of a hat. Put that together with his abundant energy, and you have a dog that interacts exuberantly with his world.

But, his temperament also means that he is easily frustrated and could have made him a big, mean, cranky dog. It didn’t because he learned that his environment is safe and predictable, which gives him a degree of agency and control of the world around him.

I meet his needs for food and exercise, for companionship and affection, for mental stimulation and learning. He is set up for joy both by his disposition and his environment.

So, how do I get Joy? First, I spend time with this big goofy guy. ❤

snow puppy

Then, I eat well and exercise, develop relationships with my fellow creatures, and indulge my curiosity and exercise my creativity. Those things do more than make me happy, they open me to happiness.

Peace

Life with Milo has not always been peaceful. For a long time, he divided up the world into prey and not-prey. If something moved, it was prey and needed to be ‘neutralized.’  Our walks followed complicated routes that avoided bikes, dogs, and big men. It was exhausting.

I learned that peace requires work.

I had to learn about German Shepherds, develop a relationship of mutual respect with Milo, and give him a job to do and some fair, consistent rules to follow. All of that, plus some time to grow up, made for a much better life.

The second sunday of Advent is all about peace: “The wolf will live with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the young goat. The calf and the lion will graze together, and a little child will lead them.”  But just one verse earlier there is a whole lot of talk about truth, justice, and integrity. They go hand-in-hand with peace. Peace is something you have to work for.

orange and white tabby cat and black and tan German shepherd dog sleeping side by side on a quilt


OK, so here we have the wolf and the leopard snoozing together. It’s not quite biblical, but there is a whole lot of peace going on.

Hope

Milo exemplifies the message of the first Sunday of Advent. He’s the most hopeful creature I’ve ever had the luck to meet.

I often wake up from a nap, face-to-face with his big nose and bright eyes, to find a ball, a tug, and a stuffy toy lined up beside me.

The message is clear, “I’ve got it all set up in case you want to play. Whatever toy you like, I have them all ready for you.”

German shepherd dog with intense and happy facial expression.

He’ll often give guests a ball and step back expectantly. If they have even a tiny smidgen of desire to play, he’s ready.

I love December—Christmas and Yule and the solstice. It is a cozy month to take stock and get ready to start again, get ready for the light.

For me, the First Sunday of Advent is about being ready for and open to good things in the coming year. It is about maintaining hope in the face of despair, which is a challenge when democracy is crumbling, and the planet’s on fire.

So, this season, in particular, I’m grateful that Milo expects, anticipates good things. He is always ready. He reminds me how to hope.

Training Tuesday: Vacations and the Hidden Curriculum​

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at cameraAs a philosophy professor (my day job) I spend a lot of time thinking about the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum includes things that get taught and learned, without anyone intending to teach or learn them.

For example, if I asked you to name a bunch of philosophers, you might mention Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, or Locke. It just so happens that all of these philosophers are white guys.

Sadly, it is not hard to find philosophy classes that only cover things that white guys wrote. In these classes, the explicit curriculum, which the professor intends to teach, concerns the ideas of great philosophers like Aristotle and the other guys on the list.

But we need to be careful about what the hidden curriculum is saying. It would be a shame if the students ended up learning that philosophers are white guys (which might be happening since white guys comprise the vast majority of philosophy majors).  No one intends to teach this, but most teaching and learning is not intentional.

Why am I talking about the hidden curriculum on a “Training Tuesday” post while Milo and I are on vacation?

Because there is lots of overlap between teaching people and training dogs. I kid you not, working with Milo has made me a much better professor. In this case, though, it is the other way around, thinking about teaching humans and the hidden curriculum is making me a better dog guardian.

Dogs and people are learning all the time. Just because a student doesn’t sit down to learn that philosophers are white guys in the same way that they sit down to learn that Aristotle lived between 384-322 BCE, doesn’t mean that they don’t pick up both messages. They don’t stop encoding memories at the end of each lecture.

Imagine using punitive methods to train a dog to sit. The explicit curriculum is about teaching the dog to sit when it’s told to do so. The hidden curriculum teaches the dog that mistakes are dangerous, that the handler is not a friend, and that the world is scary and capricious.

On the other hand, training the same behavior using positive methods, exemplifies a very different hidden curriculum. Dogs trained in this way learn that it is good to try new things and that working with their handler is not only safe but is more like play than like work.

Just because Milo and I are on vacation (and I forgot a bunch of our training equipment at home), it doesn’t mean that he isn’t going to learn anything on this trip. In other words, there is a hidden curriculum embedded in our relationship and Milo is learning that curriculum even when we are not formally training.

There are some things I do not want him to learn on this trip. For example, I don’t want him to learn to ignore my recall when we are on the shore of a beautiful big lake, and I don’t want him to learn to grab a hotdog when I am toasting it over the fire (you know how this one got on the list…).

There are also lots of things I do want him to learn, even though they are not in any training plan. I want him to learn that he and I can have delightful adventures together, that there are lots of happy, friendly people in the world, and that no matter what we’re doing or where we are, I’ve got his back.

Milo doesn’t stop learning just because I stop training.

black and tan German shepherd standing in clear water and holding a large stick

Milo has already learned that Lake Huron has an abundance of excellent sticks.

The gift of attention, love, and trimming Milo the AwesomeDog’s nails

black and tan German Shepherd with happy expression on his faceThe gift of your undivided attention is one of the simplest, although not one of the easiest, ways to show that someone you care about them. We’ve all had those conversations, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, during which we’re 100% engaged with another person. These conversations build relationships. Two people become one. Time stops. Or flies. Attention can be an expression of respect and an expression of love.

Marilyn Frye is one of my favorite philosophers. In her book, The Politics of Reality, she cautions us to take responsibility for what we pay attention to and what we ignore. She reminds us that “attend,” and its opposite, “ignore,” are verbs. They’re action words. We are responsible for our actions.

I’m grateful to Frye for reminding me that I need to be responsible for what I pay attention to because it is easy to switch over to automatic pilot, let myself get distracted, and only attend to things that get right up in my face.

Milo the AwesomeDog does not like manicures. I used to deal with this by grabbing his paw, telling him not to be a baby, and trimming his nails as quickly as I could. This is less than ideal, and so I’m working on a counter-conditioning regime where I break the nail trim process down into baby steps and use rewards to help Milo build a positive association with each step.

He has to be OK with one step before I move onto the next, and this forced me to pay attention to him in a new way. Instead of zeroing in on his paw, I had to back up and look at all of his body language to gauge how he was feeling.

I learned something that made my heart swell. I thought I had maximal love for him, and it turned out I was wrong. You see, Milo doesn’t dislike manicures. He hates them. He presents a classic picture of a stressed dog—probably the same level of stress that I feel looking forward to and enduring a long and painful dental procedure. But even so, he submitted to those nail trims because I asked him to. It was something very difficult that he did for me, every week. And it never even occurred to me to be grateful.

I would not have noticed this if I didn’t back up and give his whole self my undivided attention.

Milo is the epitome of a fine hound.

Art and the science of canine consciousness

a painting consisting of a vertical stripe of blueThe frustration I feel when I see people look at abstract art and say, “I could do that,” is tinged with hypocrisy. Why? Because when I look at paintings like Blue Column, by Morris Louis, I say it too.

I say it even though I know that Blue Column is art and is important. Afterall, even though I could have produced that painting, I didn’t. And, I love color field paintings and can gaze at them for hours.

I have to remind myself that just because the bar might seem to be set very low when we call an abstract painting “art,” it doesn’t mean that the picture is unimportant or banal.

This attitude toward art helps me be more fairminded and respectful of science. Particularly of scientific research that seems to set the bar really low for canine emotion, consciousness, and cognition.

There is lots of scientific research that seems to do this. And my initial response to that research is generally pretty snarky.

For example, Juliane Bräuer et al just published a research study titled, “A ball is not a Kong: Odor representation and search behavior in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) of different education” in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. The paper reported that when working and companion dogs followed a scent trail produced with one toy and encountered a different toy at the end of that trail, they hesitated.

My initial disrespectful response to the paper was, “No shit Sherlock, I could have told you that.”

But that response inhibits my curiosity about the research program that produced the paper and undermines my ability to think about why the researchers did that experiment and how they might have done it better.

This experiment was designed to explore whether dogs have a mental representation, a sort of olfactory picture in their minds, of objects in their world. The researchers are interested in canine consciousness, just like me.

The researchers found that pet dogs and working dogs, some of whom were trained in search and rescue, both hesitated the first time they encountered the wrong toy at the end of a scent trail, but didn’t hesitate in subsequent trials. They also found that the working dogs followed the trail faster than the pet dogs, but again, only in the early runs of the experiment.

This experiment brings some interesting things to mind:

I’m still bothered because the researchers set the bar so low for determining whether a dog has a mental representation of what she’s smelling. From my perspective, there was no need to do this experiment because the results are obvious:

  • If we think of this from an ecological or evolutionary perspective, it’s difficult to imagine a creature who uses scent to hunt for prey not hesitating when they find a surprising item at the end of a track.
  • I do tracking with my German Shepherd, Milo. When he comes to the end of a track, which is what happened in this experiment, he hesitates and sniffs around trying to find it again. That is what dogs do, and it is what the dogs in this study did. It seems that if the researchers had collaborated with an expert dog handler, they’d have seen that this was an unnecessary experiment.

But, I sometimes forget that my perspective isn’t the only one out there. What if the researchers weren’t trying to prove this point to someone like me?

Afterall, 25 working dogs took part in this study and presumably those dogs’ handlers knew what was going on and I bet the results weren’t surprising to many of those people either.

These researchers were speaking to a scientific community in which many members are skeptical that creatures other than humans and chimpanzees have rich inner lives. (I have one friend who describes rabbits as furry machines that turn carrots into poop.) When juxtaposed against background beliefs like these, this study’s results become surprising, interesting, and important.

Also, this study might be a necessary building block for more complicated investigations of canine consciousness and representation.

Finally, some people will give scientific knowledge more authority than the experience of expert dog handlers and trainers. For example, a scientific paper might convince policymakers who would not be moved by expert testimony that we need practices and laws that respect dogs as having rich inner lives.

I didn’t need this experiment to tell me that dogs have representations of what they are smelling. But that doesn’t make the research unimportant. This experiment is much more convincing than my blustering “I could have told you that” will ever be.