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.

 

 

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