Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Doggie determination

Our dog Guinness has brought home the truth of the quip that cats are teenagers, dogs are toddlers.

His engine has two settings: "full throttle" and "off."  We got him two and a half years ago as an eleven-month-old rescue, so he has settled down a little as compared to the irrepressible puppy exuberance he came with.  Which is a bit of a relief.  Handling seventy pounds' worth of irrepressible puppy exuberance can be a little exhausting.

He is never content unless he's interacting with either me or my wife.  "Will you please go entertain yourself for a while?" is a common phrase heard around Chez Bloomgarden-Bonnet.  And he doesn't just want to interact with us any old way; it has to be exactly the right way.  He loves to play fetch -- can do so for hours on end -- but not if we're standing on the patio.  No, throwing the ball into the lawn from the patio is not the proper way.  A true game of fetch must be played from a seated position, in one of the lawn chairs next to the pond.  I kid you not.  From the patio, he'll chase the ball once, pick it up, and then stare at us with an expression like, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?"  Move a hundred yards in a westward direction to the lawn chairs by the pond, and he will happily retrieve over and over.  And over and over and over.

No, I don't get it, either.

Be that as it may, he is extraordinarily sensitive to our moods, tone of voice, and body language, and seems to watch us constantly for cues about what is going on.  We can talk about him without using any obvious clue-words like his name, or even dog or play or ball, and he immediately knows (to judge by the fact that his tail will start wagging, even if he appeared to be sound asleep).  When we talk to him directly, he stares at us with this eager expression, like he really wants to understand every word we're saying.  If it's a bit above his head, he gives us the Canine Head-Tilt of Puzzlement:

"I'm so disappointed in myself," he seems to be saying.  "I will try much harder to understand next time."

You might even say he shows dogged determination.  *rimshot*

He's also one of the most affectionate dogs I've ever known.  Like I said, his number one priority is interacting with us as much as possible.

The reason all this comes up is because of a study that appeared this week in the journal Current Biology that strongly suggests dogs come pre-wired to connect with humans -- i.e., this isn't learned behavior.  Dogs may refine these skills, and learn specific cues and behaviors, but the ability is innate.

Led by Hannah Salomons of Duke University, this study compared the behavior of puppies and wolf cubs, both groups of which had been given equal prior exposure to humans.  They found that the puppies automatically responded to people -- they were much more willing to come up to a person spontaneously, make eye contact, and look to the human for cues about what to do.  Wolves, on the other hand, started out afraid, and would huddle in the corner when a person came close, and even once habituated to people's presence would mostly ignore them rather than interact.  "They acted like I was a piece of furniture," Salomons said.

Most fascinating of all, puppies seem to come equipped with at least some level of a "theory of mind" -- knowledge that their own perspective isn't shared by everyone, and that the world would look different through the eyes of another.  One of the most rudimentary theory-of-mind tests is to point at a treat on the floor that is visually hidden from the dog -- i.e., you can see it, the dog can't.  Wolves don't respond to this at all; dogs usually pick up on it right away.  And it's a more sophisticated response than it seems at first.  To figure out what pointing means, the dog has to think, "If I was standing where (s)he is, sight-lining down the arm toward the floor, where would it be indicating?"

"Dogs are born with this innate ability to understand that we're communicating with them and we're trying to cooperate with them," Salomons said, in an interview with Science Daily.

We not only cooperate with them, we also provide a valuable opportunity for them to get dressed up fancy now and again.

It seems like this in-touchness dogs are born with has come from millennia of domestication, where their use as companions meant that generation after generation people were selecting the most responsive, interactive dogs, meaning their capacity for bonding to humans increased over time.  Contrast that to cats -- and I mean no disparagement of our feline friends -- but they are often characterized as more aloof and self-reliant than dogs.  No surprise, really; having cats as companion animals is a relatively recent innovation, while there is good evidence that dogs have been companions back at least thirty thousand years.

"This study really solidifies the evidence that the social genius of dogs is a product of domestication," said Brian Hare, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke, senior author of the study.  "It's this ability that makes dogs such great service animals.  It is something they are really born prepared to do."

Now, y'all'll have to excuse me.  Guinness wants something.  I'm not sure if it's food, petting, or an early round of fetch-the-ball.  Maybe some of each.  Don't worry, I'll figure it out.

Which, incidentally, brings up the awkward question of who domesticated whom.


I've loved Neil de Grasse Tyson's brilliant podcast StarTalk for some time.  Tyson's ability to take complex and abstruse theories from astrophysics and make them accessible to the layperson is legendary, as is his animation and sense of humor.

If you've enjoyed it as well, this week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is a must-read.  In Cosmic Queries: StarTalk's Guide to Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We're Going, Tyson teams up with science writer James Trefil to consider some of the deepest questions there are -- how life on Earth originated, whether it's likely there's life on other planets, whether any life that's out there might be expected to be intelligent, and what the study of physics tells us about the nature of matter, time, and energy.

Just released three months ago, Cosmic Queries will give you the absolute cutting edge of science -- where the questions stand right now.  In a fast-moving scientific world, where books that are five years old are often out-of-date, this fascinating analysis will catch you up to where the scientists stand today, and give you a vision into where we might be headed.  If you're a science aficionado, you need to read this book.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

No comments:

Post a Comment