Friday, June 6, 2014

What I've Been Reading

How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain by Gregory Berns. I rest my case.

Dog Project

When we began the dog project, we had no idea what we would find. What started as a half-baked idea to scan dogs’ brains mushroomed into a full-fledged research program faster than I ever expected. Even with just hot dogs, and then smells, we had found evidence that dogs mentalized about the humans in their lives. I suppose this should not have been surprising. Many dog owners are convinced that their dogs know who they are and return their love for them. But, for the first time, we saw direct evidence of reciprocation in the dog-human relationship and social cognition in the canine brain.

Proof of social cognition means that dogs aren’t just Pavlovian learning machines. It means that dogs are sentient beings, and this has startling consequences for the dog-human relationship.

When scientists speak of behavioral change, they are really talking about learning. And, as far as we know, there are only two mechanisms of learning that animals employ: associative learning and social learning. For a century, Pavlovian behaviorists have argued for the predominance of associative learning. Animals, dogs included, are great at learning associations between neutral events and things that they like, such as food, or things that they don’t like, such as pain. But associative learning cannot explain all of animal behavior. For one, it is inefficient. For an animal to learn associations, it has to actually experience the events. This is a trial-and-error process. By this learning mechanism, a dog would actually have to touch its paw to a hot stove to learn that that is something to be avoided. Social learning is far more efficient.

Many animal species employ social learning. Songbirds, for example, learn their species-specific calls from each other. But besides humans, dogs may be the best of all. By watching other dogs, Fido can learn a great deal. He doesn’t have to burn his paw to learn that the stove is dangerous if he sees another dog (or human) do the same. And, of course, puppies learn from each other and their mother, copying behaviors like pulling toys. I have often wondered how dogs got so good at social learning. While many animals learn from members of their own species , dogs are one of the few that can learn from other species . Herding dogs, for example, learn by observing sheep and cattle.

And all dogs learn by observing humans and other members of their households , just like Callie learned how to open doors. Village dogs, even though they are not attached to specific humans, exemplify this ability for social learning. There is no other way they could keep up with the ever-changing form of human society.

Dogs’ sensitivity to social signals also puts a new twist on the old notion of human as “pack leader.” While it is easy to confuse being a pack leader with being dominant, that is a mistake that has harmed more dogs than any other piece of advice. The better analogy for being a pack leader comes from management literature. While there are different styles of leadership, the most important characteristics of a great leader are clarity and consistency. Without those two qualities, people (and dogs ) cannot know your intentions. Great leaders are also respected , not because of their position, but because of their inner strength and integrity. Leaders do what they say. Leaders listen to people, and although they may not always agree, they have respect for others. Great leaders help people.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the key to improving dog-human relationships is through social cognition, not behaviorism. Positive reinforcement is a shortcut to train dogs, but it is not necessarily the best way to form a relationship with them. To truly live with dogs, humans need to become “great leaders.” Not dictators who rule by doling out treats and by threatening punishment, but leaders who respect and value their dogs as sentient beings.

Dog Rights

The brain-imaging results showed that dogs had mental processes substantially similar to our own. And if that is true, shouldn’t they be afforded rights similar to humans? I suspect that society is many years away from considering that proposition. However, recent rulings by the US Supreme Court have included neuroscientific findings that open the door to such a possibility. In 2010, the court ruled that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As part of the ruling, the court cited brain-imaging evidence that the human brain is not mature at age thirteen, supporting the notion that children, even teenagers, are not fully responsible for their actions.

Although this case has nothing to do with dog sentience, the court opened the door for neuroscience in the courtroom. Perhaps someday we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings.

But if dogs have more capacity for social cognition than we previously thought, then we must reevaluate where they belong on the spectrum of animal consciousness. And this necessitates a reevaluation of their rights. Dolphins, whales, chimpanzees, and elephants, for example, have all been recognized as having substantial cognitive capacities, even self-awareness, and as a result are increasingly being protected from hunting (although many people do not recognize these protections).

Throughout human history, there has been an undeniable trend toward granting basic rights of self-determination and liberty to groups of people that were once thought inferior. People of color, women, and gays and lesbians have all benefited from a general recognition of equality. Will animals be next? Because animals cannot speak, it will take a technological revolution like brain imaging to show that they have many of the same mental processes humans do.

Finally, after two years, the Dog Project had begun to find clues to why we love dogs so much and how dogs became who they are. Eventually, our results might even explain why dogs and humans came together thousands of years ago. The brain data pointed to dogs’ unique interspecies social intelligence. In answer to the question “What are dogs thinking?” the grand conclusion was this: they’re thinking about what we’re thinking. The dog-human relationship was not one-sided. With their high degree of social and emotional intelligence, dogs reciprocated our feelings toward them. They truly are First Friend.

Apart from humans, strong evidence for theory of mind has been found in only monkeys and apes, which have social cognition for primates but not necessarily other animals. Dogs are much better than apes at interspecies social cognition. Dogs easily bond with humans, cats, livestock, and pretty much any animal. Monkeys, chimpanzees, and apes will not do this without a lot of training from a young age. And even then, I would never trust an ape.

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