Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Knowing dogs

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, dogs, science journalism

I am not much of a dog person. The three dogs I owned all lived less than a year, each dying when struck by a car. By the time I was fifteen I was done with dogs. I had better luck with cats, keeping one for 18 years, but that is a subject for a different article.

Can you tell what this dog is feeling? Wouldn't you say he has guilt written all over him? I find it interesting that, seeing a furtive look on a friend, we might say he has guilt written all over his face, but of a dog, we generalize to the whole body. Dogs speak with their whole body, while human "body language" is largely confined to our faces.

Until recently, no scientist would agree that this dog is feeling guilt. That was considered unwarranted anthropomorphism. No animal was allowed to have feelings in any way mirroring human emotions, or thoughts of any sort. The paradigm in Animal Science courses of the 1960s was that animals didn't think, had only the most primitive emotions (left unnamed), and didn't genuinely feel pain (which allowed experimenters to inflict agony without feeling guilt themselves).

Jane Goodall changed all that, by naming the chimps she observed, and writing about them almost as though they were human. After terrific resistance, the scientific community began to shift. Now animal scientist Alexandra Horowitz can write Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, and escape excommunication from the scientific community. As she tells us, dogs do see, though differently; they do smell, and much better than we; and they certainly know things, but having much different interests they also know things we don't know, just as we know much that they won't ever know. The book's illustrations, like that above, are by the author.

It starts with size. Attach a video camera to your knee or even lower and go about your business while it is running. This is better than attaching it to your dog, who just may object to being "critter-cammed". How does the world look from about one foot above the ground? Even more so, how does it smell? Our noses are four to five feet above ground level, where the scents that waft upwards from ground-bound "things" are much diluted. A dog's nose is naturally carried less than a foot high, and can easily be lowered right to ground level. So even if a dog's eyes were identical to ours, and his nose identical to ours (a tragic thought), it is like real estate: Location, Location, Location!

But a dog's eyes are different from ours. They do see most colors, but not red (neither does that bull in the field see red; a red flag or cape looks black to him, making him think he is being challenged by a rival bull). A dog's vision is from greenish-yellow to violet. In addition, most dogs see horizontal motion much more keenly than we, the better to detect that rabbit starting to turn aside. Yet for many of the things we see well, dogs' eyes are less efficient. A dog's vision is used two ways: firstly, to spot things worth smelling or tasting, and secondly, to observe us and know us. They attend to us most persistently.

(I have heard preachers say that only humans have religion, because "you never see a dog making an idol to pray to." They don't have to. They live among their deities! Think about it. We feed and shelter them, heal their illnesses, and freely exercise the power of life or death with them. We are their gods. If you lived in your god's house, and could see your god, would you not be very, very attentive?!?)

But the eyes are secondary to the nose, the nose! Most dogs are a million times better at smelling than you or I. Not only do they have 10,000 times as many smell cells; they have anatomical flaps and spirals that do a much better job of getting those smells to the cells. Where "seeing is believing" for a person, dogs only believe what they smell. A person your size, disguised as you, might fool your dog for a moment, but as soon as the air shifts the imposter's scent the dog's way, he'll know right away! Thus, if you are walking your dog, don't drag him away from every smell. That is like making a friend you are walking with go blindfolded.

Dogs have co-evolved with humans for 15,000 years or longer, perhaps much longer. The original wolves who worked their way into human camps and, eventually, homes, were those who could tolerate human nearness and contact; those who were best able to respond socially to us social apes. Experiments with Siberian foxes, begun two generations ago, showed how quickly one could turn wild foxes into a doglike domestic animal, just by selecting those which were least fearful of humans for breeding, and the same with their offspring. In the time it takes a human baby to grow up, about fifteen fox generations, the experimenters had a bunch of foxes that liked human contact, barked instead of yipped, had softer ears and more curly tails, and higher foreheads. All these characteristics seem to come as a package, genetically. There's a PBS video on this; it is uncanny seeing foxes that look like dogs and act like dogs.

But what do dogs know? Can they know as we know? Have you ever watched a sleeping dog twitch during a dream? Maybe she yelps quietly and her legs kick. She is playing with a friend, or chasing something, in her dream. Now think about your own dreams. Do you speak and hear words in your dreams? I do. Do you ever smell anything in a dream? I never have. It seems dogs always do, as much as can be told from watching them and noting how they snuffle during a dream as during waking. We tend to think in a combination of sights and words. We know what we can describe. Dogs thinking has to be different, based on sounds and bodily feelings (for they do love the tactile sense). I, at least, am convinced that any animal (not just vertebrates) thinks and feels things; that is what brains are for. Dogs happen to be more compatible with humans than any other animal, partly because there is quite an overlap between our ways of feeling and thinking.

The book's title comes from a saying by Groucho Marx (or one of his writers): "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." Dr. Horowitz spent more than a year observing, videoing, analyzing, and learning a bit more how to understand that postural language, Dog. After reading her book, inside of a dog, it is getting easier to read.

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