Thursday, January 6, 2011

What Is It Like To Be a Dog?

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know 


In the last fifteen years the field of animal cognition has exploded.  Where a few researchers -- Roger Fouts (Next of Kin) or Irene Pepperberg (Alex and Me), for instance -- had labored for decades in relative obscurity, producing amazing results that were little known, even in academic circles -- suddenly it seems to have become hip to study animal minds and to have a strong position on the question.  The debate rages about whether, and to what degree, animals are conscious, whether they are thinking feeling beings, or just the automatons that Descartes believed them to be.  There's a lot of fascinating thought and work on this topic and B&Bs plans to cover as much of it as we can. 

For the moment, though, it is worth noting that earlier generations of scientists and researchers were often very clear about where they stood on this question.  One of Charles Darwin's lesser known works, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, takes a very clear stance on the side of awareness and feeling.  Darwin writes, "He who admits, on general grounds, that the structure and habits of all animals have been gradually evolved will look at the whole subject of Expression in a new and interesting light."  Human intelligence, consciousness and emotions, Darwin maintains, are products of evolution just like our eyes or our thumbs.  We have to expect to find analogous developments in other creatures.

The German biologist Jacob von Uexküll (1864 - 1944), was a pioneering researcher in animal behavior and a founder of what has come to be called Biosemiotics, literally, the study of the signs of life.  In a fascinating paper called  "A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds," (Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept, ed. and trans. Claire H. Schiller (New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1957) he explains a concept he calls "the umwelt (OOM-velt), the "self world" of individual creatures.  Alexandra Horowitz, who teaches psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University, has taken von Uexküll's idea and applied it to dogs in a wonderful book called "Inside of a Dog, What Dogs See, Smell and Know". 

She explains the idea like this.  "What he (von Uexküll) proposed was revolutionary:  anyone who wants to understand the life of an animal must begin by considering what he called their umwelt ... their subjective or 'self-world'.  Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal .... If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it.  The first way to discover this is to determine what the animal can perceive:  what it can see, hear, smell or otherwise sense.  Only objects that are perceived can have meaning to the animal ... Second, how does the animal act on the world?  ... These two components -- perception and action -- largely define and circumscribe the world of every living thing."  Von Uexküll describes the umwelt as a "soap bubble" with the creature in question at its center.  Really looking at what the animal can perceive and how it acts upon the world allows us to imaginatively step into its soap bubble.

During her time in graduate school, Horowitz says, she spent many hours with her dog at local parks, and since she was training to be an ethologist ("a scientist of animal behavior"), she began to observe the dogs in the park as scientist in the field would study wild animals.  "Where once I saw and smiled at the play between Pumpernickel and the local bull terrier, I now saw a complex dance requiring mutual cooperation, split-second communications, and assessment of each other's abilities and desires. The slightest turn of the head or the point of a nose now seemed directed, meaningful.  I saw dogs whose owners did not understand a single things their dogs were doing; I saw dogs too clever for their playmates; I saw people misreading canine requests as confusion and delight as aggression.  I began bringing a video camera with us and taping our outings at the parks ... when I began watching the videos in extremely slow motion playback, I saw behaviors I had never seen in years of living with dogs ...."

Out of these studies came Inside of a Dog.  With the benefit of her studies, her observations, and a wide knowledge of research, Horowitz engages our empathic imagination to take us inside the dog's soap bubble and see (and smell and hear) the world from their point of view.  The result is a book that will fascinate and instruct anyone who lives with and works with dogs.  Whole chapters are devoted to smell (a faculty of dogs that often seems beyond our ken as relatively deprived primates), sight, and sound, as well as the evolution of dogs and the ways in which dogs are, and are not, like their wolf ancestors. 

The book is full or surprising insights, even for those of us who spend inordinate amounts of times living with and learning about dogs.  For instance, in discussing the effects of domestication she notes that puppies, as opposed to wolf pups, open their eyes earlier and show their first fear responses later, and adaptation that allows a longer window of time for the puppies to bond with their human caretakers.  A tiny change, but one that might have been crucial in turning wolves into dogs.

This is a book to be read, savored, and gone back to for more in depth reading on the topics which most interest you. 


Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and KnowAlex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the ProcessThe Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey ParrotsNext of Kin: My Conversations with ChimpanzeesThe Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Penguin Classics) 

1 comment:

  1. Hi, in Poland was just published a book by Jean Rolin translated from French to Polish. The title of this book (translated by me from Polish to English) is: "And someone thew him a dead dog". Maybe you are interested in it.