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.

 

 

Figuring out what your dog is thinking: “Does this pee smell funny to you?”

This post is not about asparagus.

One of the neatest thing about being human is that I get to know what it is like to be me. I’m not saying I’m all that, I’m saying that I have consciousness, self-awareness, and that it’s great. For example, I love chocolate cake. Not only am I happy when I eat it, I know that I’m happy when I eat it, and moreover, I know that there’s a me that is happy. There is something that it is like to be me. I can stop, introspect, and think about what I’m thinking right now—which, thanks to that last example, is chocolate cake.

Amoebas don’t get to do this. I doubt an amoeba says to itself, “Damn I’m hungry. I’m going to tuck into the next paramecium I see.” That amoeba exists and eats, but it doesn’t know what it is like to exist or to eat, it doesn’t know that IT is doing the eating and I am pretty sure that it didn’t enjoy doing the eating.

Consciousness, humans have it, and amoebas don’t. But what about other creatures? One way scientists have tried to test whether a creature has consciousness is to see if it recognizes itself in a mirror. Most creatures, including humans less than 18 months old, don’t.

When my cat Hoss jumps up on my bathroom counter while I’m getting ready in the morning, he puffs up, hisses, and arches his back at the sight of his reflection, just like he does when he sees the neighbor’s cat walk by the living room window. While he might have some kind of consciousness, he doesn’t provide evidence of it when he treats his reflection like it’s another cat.

When a chimp sees its reflection, it might initially ask its mirror image to play, but before long you can see a lightbulb go off in that chimp’s eyes as it realizes it’s looking at itself. At this point, chimps start doing things like opening their mouths to check out their molars and pulling their eyelids down to look at the whites of their eyes. My personal favorite is when they turn around to look over their shoulders at their rear ends like they’re trying on jeans in a department store. It seems like these chimps know they’re seeing themselves, and this means they have some idea that they are a self, that they have some sense of being a “me.”

Scientists also perform an experiment called the Mark Test, in which they put dye on a chimp’s forehead and then plunk her back in front of a mirror. When a chimp passes this test she will touch her forehead as if to say, “What the heck is this stuff on me?” Again, there is that word, “me.”

Adult humans, chimps, elephants, magpies, and dolphins have all ‘passed’ the mark test. But not dogs.

Psychologist Andrea Horowitz realized that the mirror and mark tests might not tell us much about dog consciousness because these tests are primarily visual and dogs rely heavily on their sense of smell. So, instead of marking a dog’s head with dye, she had the cool idea of marking a dog’s scent with another scent. In other words, she performed a sort of olfactory mark test.

She exposed a bunch of dogs to four kinds of smells: their urine, an unfamiliar dog’s urine, their urine with another scent added, and that other scent on its own.

She found that of all these scents, dogs were most interested in the smell of their urine with another scent added to it. These dogs paid a lot of attention to the smell of their own “marked” urine.

So, does a dog paying attention to the smell of its ‘marked’ urine, mean the same thing as a chimp paying attention to its marked reflection in a mirror?

The comparison is complicated because while we can observe a chimp try to remove the dye from its face, we can’t observe a dog try to remove the funny smell from its pee.

But even so, and as Horowitz explains in her original publication titled “Smelling themselves: Dogs investigate their own odours longer when modified in an “olfactory mirror” test” her data is

consistent with a thesis that dogs notice their odour when it is changed, and move to more fully examine it. Such behaviour implies a recognition of the odour as being or from themselves.

The neat word in this quote is ‘themselves.” If the dog could talk, it might say, “Hey, this smells like me, but with something different added in.”

We need to be careful not to make too much of a single study. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done on canine consciousness and canine minds.

But I have to admit that I am enthralled by Horowitz’s idea of an olfactory mirror for dogs.

sniff 3Milo the AwesomeDog loves to sniff. He regularly sniffs so vigorously that he has to sneeze out the debris he’s sucked into his nose. I am almost overcome with curiosity about what the movie in his mind must “look like” when instead of being based on sight, it’s based on smell-o-vision. And then Horowitz comes along and uses this smell-o-vision as way to look into what it is like to be him. Milo knows he smells, therefore he is?