Monday, November 1, 2010

Canine Cognition: Why the controversy?

Most dog lovers feel in their guts that canines are more than simple input-output machines; that they think, feel, and have consciousness and empathy. But canine cognition, the science of dog intelligence, is still a controversial field. Let's take a look at the evidence.

Until the 1950s, scientists favored a reductionist model of psychology, using experiments on animals (for example, the Skinner box) to show simple processes that they believed would illuminate some facets of undoubtedly more complex, sophisticated human intelligence. This early work is still valuable today; classical and operant conditioning, in particular, inform much of modern dog training practices.

However, research continues to expand our knowledge of non-human psychology. As scientists turned increasingly to primates, marine mammals and other animals, instead of the typical rats and mice, and as the field of ethology (studying animals in their native habitats) grew, we found surprises around every corner. In hindsight, it seems obvious: of course animals behave differently in the field than in a laboratory maze. Long-term projects, like the chimpanzee studies of Washoe and Nim, provided insights into social learning, tool use, and other never-before-seen aspects of animal behavior.

The most controversial subjects of animal cognition may be those of consciousness, language-learning, and empathy.

Consciousness, or self-awareness, was long measured by Donald Griffin's mirror test, in which researchers apply some paint or marking to a subject animal's face while it's sleeping. Upon awakening, the animal is placed in front of a mirror. Humans and other primates tend to touch their face on or near the mark, demonstrating that we recognize the face in the mirror as our own. Bottle-nose dolphins have also shown self-recognition in this fashion.

Dogs fail this test miserably, leading some to the conclusion that they have no concept of self. That is, until Marc Bekoff reframed the experiment. Dogs aren't as visually-oriented as us, he posited, so why not play to their strong suit? Bekoff designed an experiment using smell, specifically, testing whether dogs could pick out their own urine from that of other dogs. Not surprisingly, the dogs aced it.

Language also seems to be a sore spot for humans. We hate to admit that we're not the only species with extraordinary talents in this arena, but a variety of species have learned language or language-like behavior, including woodpeckers, cetaceans, and Irene Pepperberg's famous African Gray Parrot, Alex.

Finally, empathy. Anticipating others' actions (thus their internal states) has been well-documented for decades in species such as chimpanzees and elephants, but say out loud, "My dog knew I was sad and tried to comfort me." Go on. I dare you. Many pet owners face derision for claiming that their dogs are able to have empathy for humans or other animals, but you'll feel better after reading this article in Scientific American about Frans de Waal's studies with mice.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your opinions, based on your own experiences, anecdotes, and... cognition.

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