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.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Dog days

Our new dog, Jethro, is in the middle of a six-week puppy obedience class.

After three weeks of intensive training, he reliably knows the command "Sit."  That's about it.  The difficulty is he's the most chill dog I've ever met.  He's not motivated to do much of anything except whatever it takes to get a belly rub. 

Jethro in a typical position

Otherwise, whatever he's doing, he's perfectly content to keep doing it, especially if it doesn't require any extra effort.  In class a couple of weeks ago I finally got him to lie down when I said, "Down," but then he didn't want to get up again.  In fact, he flopped over on his side and refused to move even when I tried tempting him with a doggie treat.  After a few minutes, the instructor said, "Is your dog still alive?"

I assured him that he was, and that this was typical behavior.

After a few more futile attempts, I gave up, sat on the floor, and gave him a belly rub.

Jethro, not the instructor.

So after working with Jethro in class and at home, I've reached three conclusions:

  1. He has an incredibly sweet, friendly disposition.
  2. He's cute as a button.
  3. He has the IQ of a PopTart.

When we give him a command, he looks at us with this cheerful expression, as if to say, "Those are words, aren't they?  I'm pretty sure those are words."  Then he thinks, "Maybe those words have something to do with belly rubs."  So he flops over on his back, and his lone functioning brain cell goes back to sleep, having accomplished its mission.

Jethro in a rare philosophical mood

I couldn't help but think of Jethro when I read a study out of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, which looked at how an electroencephalogram trace changes when dogs are told the names of things (rather than commands to do things), and it found that the parts of the brain that are involved in mental representations of objects activate in dogs -- just as they do in humans.  The upshot is that dogs seem to form mental images when they hear the names of the objects.

"Dogs do not only react with a learned behavior to certain words," said study lead author Marianna Boros, in an interview with Science Daily.  "They also don't just associate that word with an object based on temporal contiguity without really understanding the meaning of those words, but they activate a memory of an object when they hear its name."

Interestingly, this response seemed to be irrespective of a particular dog's vocabulary.  "It doesn't matter how many object words a dog understands," Boros said.  "Known words activate mental representations anyway, suggesting that this ability is generally present in dogs and not just in some exceptional individuals who know the names of many objects."

"Dogs are not merely learning a specific behavior to certain words, but they might actually understand the meaning of some individual words as humans do," said Lilla Magyari, who co-authored the study.  "Your dog understands more than he or she shows signs of."

Well, okay, maybe your dog does.  With Jethro, the best response he seems to be capable of is mild puzzlement.  I wish he'd been one of the test subjects, but my fear would be that when they'd say a word to him, the response on the EEG would be *soft static*, and the researchers would come to me with grave expressions and say, "I'm sorry to give you the bad news, Mr. Bonnet, but your dog appears not to have any higher brain function."

Of course, I have to admit that it's hard to discern between "I don't understand what you're saying" and "I don't give a damn about what you're saying."  Yesterday when my wife was trying to teach him to catch a foam rubber frisbee, and he repeatedly allowed the frisbee to bonk off of the top of his head, it might be that he knew perfectly well what she wanted him to do and just didn't want to do it.  So perhaps Lilla Magyari's right, and he's smarter than we think he is. 

Given how often he's persuaded us to give up on all the "Sit," "Down," and "Stay" bullshit and just give him a belly rub, maybe he's not the one who's a slow learner.


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