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DUH! Moments From Dog Studies

August 19th, 2011

I am in the wrong business. If I truly wished to make a lot of money I’d simply go into the professional arena of conducting studies of dogs. I’d get grant money, money from publishing papers, probably money from speaking engagements. All of that would be good income and take little intelligence from me.

I have run across several studies of dogs and their various aspects of behavior from the past two or three years. They all seem to me, if anyone exercised one ounce of common sense, to be DUH! Moments that have world-wide anecdotal and observed basis, but have somehow made it into the “study” realm.

I’ve worked with and observed dogs for over forty years. I’ve come to a lot of conclusions, all premised on the dogs and their behaviors as displayed by them during daily interaction, both social and work. I hear my clients reiterate much of the same observations. Some clients, I will admit, go over the top and read way too much into what they see, but that’s to be expected and taken with a grain of salt.

The first of the big DUH! Moments came two years ago when it was reported that “Dogs are as smart as toddlers, study finds“. This little gem was based on a language development test and the following quote was offered, “”The dogs that are the brightest dogs in terms of school learning ability tend to be the dogs that are much more recently developed,” Coren said.” This study was predicated on the responses of Border collies.

Heck, these scientists could have learned this for the price of a beer, or perhaps a shot of very good whiskey depending on the person, from Border collie handlers over 35 years ago. That’s when I first heard that the average working Border collie had a vocabulary of over 250 words. And based on the above quote, it seems these scientists believe that it is the “newer” breeds that show the most intelligence. When talking about the Border collie, the breed motto is “Brains Before Beauty”. That says it all. We don’t breed for looks, but intelligence. This is a lost art in the dog breeding business, but if breeders actually bred for this quality, instead of the current weak dogs so that trainers and owners can deal with them as dog handling skills deteriorate, then we probably would see that the majority of breeds are actually quite smart.

I don’t refer, when speaking of my dogs’ vocabulary, to silly words such as ‘treat’, ‘out’, or ‘play’. I refer to my dogs’ ability to differentiate between truck, car, or RoadTrek. My dogs invariably head directly to the appropriate vehicle.

The second DUH! Moments appeared when it was reported that “Studies show dogs have a sense of fairness“. It made me begin to wonder if humans weren’t just a tad stupid. What makes humans believe we’ve cornered the market on emotions? What makes us believe that only humans can experience complex emotions? I remember reading a book, “When Elephants Weep“, by Jeffrey Masson, some ten or fifteen years ago. I would suggest everyone read it.

When Elephants Weep


Covering the gamut of emotions there are examples of everything from what humans consider rage to religion. How CAN we ignore the elephants that return to the bones of those who have died, caress them, and then move on? Don’t we visit the graves of our loved and lost ones?

I, though loathe to attribute anthropomorphism to my dogs, have seen embarrassment in their eyes and demeanor. One of my dogs was allowed to sleep on a sofa. She was dead-out and rolled off. Her look at all of us in the room was one of complete and utter embarrassment, I promise. I’ve also seen them do things, such as, trip or stumble, and quickly glance around as if to ensure no one saw it. These are identifiable emotions as we have had them ourselves. Why do we need a study to prove that which is so clear? Why would we not think, if embarrassment is possible, the emotion of fairness is not possible? It’s hubris to believe that emotions don’t cross species.

I was then segued into a combination of two studies that, in my mind, were linked; “Dog ‘Guilt’ Probably Just Reaction to Owners’ Cues, Study Finds” and “Study: Police Dogs Are Influenced by Their Handlers’ False Prejudices“.

In the article about guilt it was proposed that it was the owners cluing the dogs into feeling guilty. Oh, GIVE ME A BREAK!! The study told “each owner to show the dog a biscuit, instruct the dog not to eat it and then leave the room…Then the owner returned and was told the dog had obeyed the command or had been disobedient and had eaten the biscuit. Owners scolded the disobedient dogs. But half the time the owners were told the truth about whether their dog had misbehaved while the other half were misled…”The most guilty look was when the owner scolded an innocent dog,” she said. “It was a bit surprising.”…concluded that such behavior is most likely the result of subtle cues that dogs picked up from their owners that make them anticipate punishment, rather than the dogs necessarily feeling guilty.”

Quintessential Guilty Look

Here we go again—humans unable to accept cross-species emotions. Why does this study OMIT the fact that guilt is predicated on the assumption of knowing right from wrong and the resultant feeling of having done wrong and being caught out in it? How many of us have thought we were doing the right thing, then taken a ration of it for having erred? We feel guilty that we didn’t know, didn’t do it right, let another down, a myriad of reasons come into play, including the obvious; we knew we weren’t supposed to, but did it anyway. Yet, we still feel guilty. Why not dogs?

How many of us have returned home to be greeted by a dog that absolutely, positively does NOT want us to enter a specific room? We didn’t arrive on the doorstep cuing the dog to guilt. We simply came home. The dog clued us in to the fact that he’d done something he knew was behaviorally unacceptable. Guilt was written clearly all over him.

Closely coupled to this, but the flip-side, was the “Study: Police Dogs Are Influenced by Their Handlers’ False Prejudices“. Here we were shown that the cues given off by human handlers operating under specific beliefs, i.e., that drugs were to be found in a given spot, led the dogs to display the “drugs found” cue to the policeman. DUH! Moments.

I see no difference in this scenario than the one in which a person gives the desired answer/response instead of the correct one.

Put all this together and what can we assume? That while anthropomorphism is alive and well amongst the lay peoples, they are still much more aware and accepting of identifiable emotions in animals than scientists. And why is that? Probably because our survival as a species was dependent upon our ability to read the emotional intentions of those animals with whom we came into contact: Is that panther going to attack or back down?

Oooohhhh…we’ve just created another study possibility…”Do Humans Read The Emotions Of Animals: A Study in the Accurate Assessment of Cross-Species Emotional Response Cues for Survival.” Let’s go make some money.

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