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.

 

 

Summer training plans

I’ve decided that this summer Milo and I will train for an obedience title and a tracking title, and take another Rally obedience class.

BH (Begleithund Test)

line diagram tracing a heel work pattern

BH heelwork pattern

This is the first obedience title that one can get in the sport of Schutzhund. I’m interested in a BH because it seems difficult but doable. In addition to a temperament test and a traffic test, the BH involves a long heelwork pattern. Milo and I can already do all of the elements of this pattern. The trick will be to link them together and keep him focused for the duration of the exercise.

 

Tracking

Tracking is on the list because Milo is an olfactory genius (proud dog mamma talking here). He loves to sniff and it seems wrong to deny him the opportunity to develop this talent. It is also a lot of fun to work with him on a project that he finds so engaging.

black and tan german shepherd with his nose down in green grass

Rally class

Milo and I could get some more Rally titles. But Rally classes provide more important benefits than titles. They are great socialization opportunities. These classes provide a safe and controlled environment with lots of new dogs and new people who Milo can practice ignoring. Also, this instructor helps me work on being a more confident handler. I can always use this sort of help.

I called this post “Summer training plans.” This is not yet a plan, only a list of interests. More detailed plans are on the horizon.

My plan for this week is to make the plan. I’ll:

  • look into upcoming Rally classes and Rally trials,
  • set up a weekly tracking and training date with some like-minded friends, and
  • make a first pass at dividing the BH and tracking training into tiny little manageable bits for me and Milo work on.

 

Taking selfies with your dog: Spatial pressure and talking without words

It was a darn near perfect Saturday afternoon–Milo and I spent hours sauntering along the Grand River. The air was crisp and the sky sapphire blue. Male blackbird songs filled the air with advertisements of nest vacancies and promises of good parenting. I had that “my cup overfloweth” feeling and wanted to commemorate the day with a selfie.

leafless tree leaning away from blue river and across blue sky

I got Milo and me positioned so that we were in good light and had something interesting behind us. But for the love of love, I couldn’t get him to look at the phone.

german shepherd with it's back to the camera licking a short-haired woman's faceThis is not new. Taking selfies with Milo is always a trial. When I put the phone in front of us instead of giving the camera a cute head tilt, he’ll look up, look down, or turn right around. I have a disturbing number of accidental pictures of Milo’s butt.

 

I always thought it was weird that such a biddable dog worked so hard to do the opposite of what I wanted him to do.

woman with short hair and german shepherd dog looking out of the pictureAnd then it hit me. He wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do, but he was doing exactly what I was telling him to do. Sometimes I forget that we don’t have a psychic connection and that Milo’s English isn’t that good.

I said, “Milo, look at the phone,” but the act of shoving the phone in his face told him to get out of there, which he did by looking or moving away. And if I stopped him from retreating while telling him to retreat, he expressed his discomfort with the tension by licking my face.

We’ve repeated this so many times that I might have taught him that the phrase ‘look at the phone’ means back up!

It’s called spatial pressure (or social pressure or body pressure), and humans use it on each other all the time. We can get each other to move without speaking and without touching. If I move into your space you will likely move away. Patrick Swayze’s character in Dirty Dancing understood this:

 

Trainers often exploit dogs’ tendencies to move when we get into their dance space as a training technique. In general, dogs (like people) prefer to turn around rather than walk backward. One standard method for teaching a dog to backup uses spatial pressure:

 

While this method might work well for you and your beloved pet, there are lots of other, and in my opinion safer, ways to teach a dog to backup. Getting into an unknown dog’s space is unpleasant for the dog, and a dog (like a person) can interpret this action as threatening. It is not difficult to teach a dog to back up without using spatial pressure.

Back to selfies.

The best we can do is wait until our dog is in a good spot and then slip in beside them and snap a few quick pics. It might help to hold a slice of cheese in the same hand as your phone, although with Milo this usually results in a phone covered with dog spit. If our dog selfies don’t turn out the way we want them to, we have to give our dogs a break.

Remember, we are always communicating with our dogs, and we often don’t realize that we are doing it or what we are saying. I actually had the thought that Milo hated having his picture taken and was stubbornly thwarting my selfie goals, when he was just responding in an entirely reasonable way to my actions.

short haired woman looking into from between a german shepherd dog's ears

With dogs, actions always speak louder than words.

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.

 

What the dog smells: The world of canine olfaction

Milo the AwesomeDog often punctuates our walks with fits of coughing, sneezing, and snorting. He’s not sick. He just sniffs thgerman shepherd dog trackinge ground vigorously enough to suck dirt and leaves right up into his nose. He takes his sniffing seriously and his days revolve around finding things to smell, and then smelling them.

It’s difficult to imagine what it is like to be Milo because while we humans are visual creatures, dogs are sniffing creatures. Dogs live with us, some of them in our homes, but at the same time, they live in a different world, a world of smells.

Nineteenth-century biologist Jakob von Uexküll called these different worlds umwelten. An animal’s umwelt, literally ‘life-world,’ is its subjective environment consisting of objects that it can perceive and with which it can engage. In the same physical space a dog, a bat, and a human have different umwelten because they can perceive and do different things. Humans can see the color red, but dogs can’t. Bats can echolocate and fly, but dogs and humans can’t.

We can begin to understand how a creature experiences the world by investigating how its senses work. If we want to understand the inner experiences of dogs, we need to study how they smell things.

This four and a half minute video, written by canine cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, does a great job explaining the complexity of dog noses and dog olfaction.  It gets us started answering the question “what is it like to be a dog?”

This video taught me that when it comes to smell, there is a bigger difference between the umwelten of a dog and a person than I initially imagined.

This difference is based on more than the fact that dogs are better sniffers than humans, although they are. Dogs can smell odors at lower concentrations than we can–100 million times lower. To illustrate the scale of this difference, Horowitz describes dogs as being able to identify the individual components of a spritz of perfume in a football stadium.

It is not just dog noses that differ from human noses, dog brains differ too. Horowitz points out that the olfactory bulb in a dog’s brain is HUGE compared to ours, and that olfaction bypasses the “thalamus to connect directly to the brain structures involving emotions and instincts.” A dog’s sense of smell is orders of magnitude more powerful than ours, AND olfaction itself is an “immediate and visceral” mode of sensation. So when you think of what it is like to be a dog, you have to imagine a powerful sense of smell, likely producing emotionally charged sensations.

Dogs can smell in stereo. Just as we can tell what direction a sound is coming from, dogs can detect the direction that an odor is coming from. They can use scent to orient themselves in the world.

Finally, a dog’s sense of smell gives them the ability to travel back and forth through time. Dogs can smell into the past to determine who you had lunch with and what you ate. And they can smell into the future, alerting you someone approaching around the corner ahead of you.

Dogs can do different things with their sense of smell than we can do with ours. This impacts their emotions, their perceptions through time, and their ways of navigating the world.

This is exciting and distressing. Exciting because it’s fun to imagine having the superpower that is a dog’s sense of smell. Distressing because the gulf between what it is like to be me and what it is like to be Milo is wider than I thought.

Even though Milo and I spend most of our time at each others’ sides, we live in different umwelten.

German Shepherd smelling grass

Hoss the Cat benefits from positive dog training

Nothing is more alluring to Hoss the Cat than an open book, the scratching of a pen on a notepad, or my fingers tapping away on a keyboard. His mission, which he chose to accept, is to get between me and whatever I’m trying to do.

He’ll saunter up and lay down on my hands as I’m writing. I pick him up and set him on the floor, and within 4 seconds he’s right back on my computer. Like the turning of the seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, Hoss effortlessly cycles from keyboard to floor and back again.

It’s reminiscent of Milo the AwesomeDog’s desire to be underfoot when I’m cooking. After realizing that yelling at Milo to back off was entirely ineffective, I embraced a positive training approach to that problem. Now Milo has a comfy bed, where he receives lots of yummy treats, in the kitchen. Rather than being underfoot, he chooses hangout on that bed because I make the bed a more desirable place for him to be.

I tried the same strategy with Hoss the Cat with great success. Hoss now has a soft bed, on a corner of my desk that works for both of us.

Here’s how it worked:

Step one: Add cat bed to desktop. 

1

There is lots of room for Hoss the Cat to make himself comfotable.

Step two: Add cat.

cat on desk

Hoss the Cat immediately made himself at home.

Step three: Give cat time to consider whether this state of affairs is to his liking.

2

Hoss contemplates the consequences of abandoning the keyboard.

Step four: Realize that your clever plan has backfired because cat distracts you from work by being adorable.

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cat bed wins

 

It ends up that all the creatures benefit from a positive approach to training.

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