Thursday, September 17, 2009

Animal minds: Our dog's world is not like ours

"Grr. Sniff. Arf.", Cathleen Shine's review of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, by Alexandra Horowitz, tries to help us understand doggy minds:
In one enormously important variation from wolf behavior, dogs will look into our eyes. “Though they have inherited some aversion to staring too long at eyes, dogs seem to be predisposed to inspect our faces for information, for reassurance, for guidance.” They are staring, soulfully, into our umwelts [trying to understand our view of the world and how it affects them]. It seems only right that we try a little harder to reciprocate, and Horowitz’s book is a good step in that direction.
Not that examining eyes always provides an answer:
Dogs respond to baby talk “partially because it distinguishes speech that is directed at them from the rest of the continuous yammering above their heads.”
Yes, that is just the problem for the dog. He simply does not know what is happening in human society most of the time because he has not mastered the facility of language. My favourite cartoon for demonstrating that fact, anthropomorphically, was one in which a dog, driven downtown in a car, yaps happily out the window to his neighbour's dog, "Hey, they're taking me to the vet to be [tutored]!"

Sometimes it is a blessing for them, of course. An irrecoverably sick animal does not know that his people have humanely decided on euthanasia. That was always a comfort to me when I signed vets' releases to have beloved cats put down. The cats never knew and never could know, and could not understand why those decisions were made: Any other possible future would be too hard for an animal with their limited intellectual resources to manage.

See also: More animal mind stories at The Mindful Hack.