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.

 

 

The art of shutting up: When not to give dog training advice

A perceptive and mean-spirited person might describe me as a cross between a pathological helper and a know-it-all. (A nicer person would call me “empathetic and well informed.”) If I see someone with a problem, it takes a lot of work for me to refrain from telling them how to fix it, or jumping in and fixing it myself.

One of the hardest life lessons I’ve learned is how NOT to do this. I call this lesson The Art of Shutting Up.

This weekend’s mild temperatures meant that the field at Masters N’ Hounds where Milo and I usually play was muddy. The first time he gleefully skidded out in the mud, I said, “Jiminy Cricket, aren’t you a mess.” (I didn’t use those exact words.)

But, it was a gorgeous day, and Milo needed a bath anyway, so I decided to let him enjoy the mud, and that we’d stop by the dog wash at PetValu on our way home. Problem solved.muddy german shepherd puppy

Years earlier, at a different park, Milo already found mud irresistable.


Skip ahead to PetValu where Milo, enjoying handfuls of treats and praise from the employees who were already his friends, gets started on a gentle shampoo.

All was well until another muddy dog, a lab, and its two people moved into the dog wash station beside us. It quickly became apparent that all three of them needed help.

  • The dog didn’t know how to walk on a leash.
  • It was afraid (ears back, tail between its legs, head down).
  • It wouldn’t get into the tub, so its people picked him up, and when he started to squirm, they dropped him.
  • When they finally got him into the tub and wet him down, they started to bicker about the right way to wash him.
  • He took advantage of their fight and jumped out of the tub, trotting over to say “Hi” to Milo and me.
  • When I asked them to remove their dog, they gave me death stares. (I didn’t even say “Jiminy Cricket,” just “please remove your dog.”)

The minute they walked in it was clear that the situation was not ideal so I put Milo’s bath into super-speedy mode. Poor Milo only got the most cursory blowout before I hustled him out of the store and into the truck.

As I was leaving, I thought to myself that I could teach those folks a lot about how to bathe a dog. I could tell them that they should have taught their dog to like baths before it was an emergency that it get one and that they should use lots of rewards and take baby steps.

Instead of explaining to these strangers what they should have done, or offering to help, I practiced the art of shutting up. For me, the art of shutting up involves recognizing when speaking is not going to do any good or isn’t going to make the world a better place.

Here are some situations where I try to practice the art of shutting up:

1) When the people I’m talking to aren’t in a position to hear me or when I’m not in a state of mind to be clear and kind
Those people struggling to bathe their dog were obviously stressed out, and so was I. I would have had a hard time being kind and they would have had a hard time learning anything.

2) When speaking up is contrary to other important goals and commitments 
At that dog wash, my primary responsibility was to take care of Milo. Stressed out dogs do weird things, and I didn’t want Milo around that poor stressed out pup and its people. Also, my goal that day was to spend some fun and relaxing time with Milo, not to teach strangers about dog husbandry.

3) When I lack knowledge of the context of the situation 
It is entirely possible that those people already knew everything that I could have told them, and that they were just having a terrible day. How was I to know?

The week before a squirrel was teasing Milo. It got Milo all jazzed up and he gave a mighty tug on his leash in a futile attempt to catch it. A bystander suggested that if Milo pulls like that all the time, I should use a head halter on him. I politely thanked her for the advice in a tone of voice that clearly suggested that she put a sock in it. She had no context for her comment. She didn’t know me or Milo, and she didn’t know that he rarely pulls like that. In fact, we do use a halter sometimes, but this was not one of those times. This lady could have made the situation better by saying nothing at all.

german shepherd sticking out tongue

Milo’s response to a stranger suggesting he wear a halter.


Sometimes the art of being well spoken is about knowing when not to speak.

Are dogs smarter than cats? A new​ scientific​ study doesn’t say one way or the other

After the announcement of a neuroscience experiment on carnivore brains headlines like these leaped onto the internet:

no

Milo and I, as well as Hoss the Cat, share Grumpy Cat’s assessment of these headlines.

You see, the research paper that triggered this brouhaha about dogs being smarter than cats wasn’t about dogs being smarter than cats. This research was conducted in Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s lab at Vanderbilt University. These scientists took the brains of a ferret, banded mongoose, cat, raccoon, hyena, lion, brown bear, and two dogs, dissolved parts of those brains in a detergent solution, and used that solution to determine the number of neurons the brains contained. Researchers then compared the number of neurons in some parts of a creature’s brain to the size of the creature’s brain and the size of the creature itself. They did not do any intelligence testing of any sort. All of this ‘dogs are smarter than cats’ talk is based on the assumption that the number and density of neurons are correlated with intelligence (in this case it’s good to be dense).

This is a very cool experiment, and the researchers found some surprising results, which by the way, had nothing to do with comparing dog and cat intelligence. Here are some of the things they found:

  1. A lot of people tend to assume that predators are smarter than prey animals. From this assumption, a person might predict that predator species will have more cortical neurons than prey species. If there’s a correlation between neuronal density and intelligence, the results of this study contradict this prediction. This study found that predators had about the same neuronal density as their prey.
  2. Scientists expected to find a correlation between how big an animal is and how many neurons it has —bigger animals have bigger brains. This study found that the correlation generally held for small and medium-sized animals but not for big animals. Animals larger than a Golden Retriever had fewer neurons than these scientists expected. Perhaps, these researchers speculate, because neurons are so energetically costly. Think of neurons as race cars in that they take expensive fuel and burn it really fast. It might be the case that large animals cannot afford to have lots and lots of neurons because they lack sufficient fuel.
  3. There is a general belief that domestication makes animals stupider. These scientists did not find decreased numbers of cortical neurons in the domestic species they looked at. So again, if there’s a correlation between neuronal density and intelligence, this study contradicts the idea that domestication results in decreased intelligence.

When scientists find unexpected results or results that contradict things lots of people assume are true, is when science gets exciting and important. These three findings are the best parts of the study, but you would never know it from the headlines racing around the internet.

To be fair, these scientists did find about twice as many cortical neurons in the brains of a Golden Retriever and a small mixed-breed dog than they did in a cat. This is indeed a striking difference. They also found that bears had way fewer and raccoons had way more cortical neurons than expected for their body size. These findings about the bear and the raccoon are way more scientifically interesting than the cat-dog business.

Even though the headlines miss these exciting bits of the research, I am concerned, cranky even, other reasons.

The study did not measure intelligence. It measured the number and density of neurons in one or two individuals of several species. There is a big difference between the number of neurons a species has and how smart or brainy or intelligent that species is. There are many questions left to answer before we start casting aspersions on the intelligence of cats, or on making any inferences about intelligence at all. I would like to know if there are differences in how well those different neurons work, how big they are, and how they are connected to one another. And even if I had the answer to those questions, I would still feel uncomfortable using that data to draw conclusions about the intelligence of a species. Many news stories about this experiment contain buried disclaimers warning us about making assumptions about intelligence. However, they make the very assumption they warn against throughout the story and rely on it to create catchy headlines to interest people in this research in the first place.

Intelligence is not a thing, it is many things. Or more accurately many different kinds of capacities or skills. Some creatures are good at living in social groups, some are good at making tools, some are good at solving puzzles, and some have great spatial memory. There are many different ways to be intelligent. If you are going to talk about intelligence, you have to be very clear about what you mean.

The reporting of this research bugs me not only because the reasoning is sloppy or because Hoss the Cat is getting an unfair deal, although both of those things are true. It bugs me because it has the potential to hurt people.

There are lots of interactions between human and nonhuman research in areas like medicine, public health, psychology, and neuroscience. Research papers about human neurobiology, psychology, and intelligence draw on animal studies all the time. Sloppy reasoning about cats and dogs can lead to and support sloppy reasoning about people. Sloppy reasoning about people has been used and is still used in some circles, to justify sexist and racist conclusions about humans.

So, let’s be more careful. One way to do this is to distinguish between what the data clearly says and what we interpret the data to mean. Once we do that we can start figuring out where we are making assumptions and deciding whether those assumptions are justified. In the case of the density of neurons in cat’s and dog’s brains, the data tells us that, in the sample of two dogs and one cat, the dogs had more neurons in some parts of their brains than the cat did. It does not measure intelligence. The media stories about this research assume a connection between numbers of neurons and intelligence. It might turn out to be true that the number of neurons in some parts of the brain is, for example, related to a species’ ability to solve spatial problems. But this study does not give us data that supports this assumption.

In fact, exciting things can happen when we take the same data and pair it with a different hypothesis and a different set of assumptions. Let’s start by considering one of the interesting conclusions this experiment suggests. It appears to disprove the long-held hypothesis that predator animals are smarter than prey animals. Here’s the argument against that hypothesis:

  • If predators are smarter than prey, [our hypothesis]
  • and the number of neurons is correlated with smartness, [an assumption]
  • then we would expect predator species to have more neurons than prey species. [a prediction]
  • In the experiment, we did not find that predators have more neurons than prey species. [the data]
  • So, our hypothesis about predators being smarter than prey is false.

But, look what happens when we flip things around and use the data to test the assumption I made in the above description of the experiment:

  • If the number of neurons is correlated with smartness, [a new hypothesis]
  • and predators are smarter than prey, [a different assumption]
  • then we would expect predator species to have more neurons than prey species. [the same prediction]
  • In the experiment, we did not find that predators have more neurons than prey species. [the same data]
  • So, our hypothesis about the number of neurons being correlated with smartness is false.

The point is that an experiment and a set of data can be objective and accurate, but can still be used to prove many different things depending on the assumptions that go along with it. We can use the same data to disprove the assumption, OR to disprove the hypothesis. Pay attention to the assumptions and look for independent ways to test them!

And, give your cat a break, she still might be a super genius.