Marc Bekoff is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Beliefs do not substitute for data
August 28 2016
Watching dogs play is very exciting, and there has been a lot empirical research on how and why dogs (and other animals) engage in this activity with boundless zeal. A number of people have asked me to comment about dog play after reading this section in a new book by Raymond Coppinger and Mark Feinstein called How Dogs Work. So, I decided to do so.
The authors begin their chapter 9 on play by claiming, “Hundreds of scientific papers have been written on the subject of ‘play’ behavior—an activity for which dogs are, of course, famous.” Recognizing that there is a solid and growing literature on play—there’s really no reason to put the word play in square quotes—I assumed that what followed would be a detailed review of this research, but rather, what I discovered was a disjointed discussion of play and not an in-depth review of the scientific literature. Instead, the authors offer their own unpublished observations and the results of unpublished student projects, all of which are impossible to assess.
Do dogs and other animals actually play? Coppinger and Feinstein write that they put the word play in scare quotes because “in spite of the fact that people feel like they know it when they see it, it’s not at all obvious that play is a unitary ‘thing-in-itself’ that can easily be characterized, let alone explained in evolutionary terms.” No one I know who has spent years studying play would argue that play is a “unitary ‘thing-in-itself’,” nor would they agree that play cannot be explained “in evolutionary terms.” Indeed, some of the references the authors include show there are a number of highly plausible evolutionary explanations (and the University of Tennessee’s Gordon Burghardt, who has studied comparative aspects of play for many years and wrote The Genesis of Animal Play, provided the Foreword for Coppinger and Feinstein’s book).
Why do animals play? Briefly, various theories have been offered about why animals play, and there’s no one explanation that fits all examples of animal play. Detailed comparative data show play is important in social development, physical development, and cognitive development. And, neurobiological research strongly suggests play can be pleasurable and fun and animals may simply play because it feels good, “for the hell of it.” Indeed, many researchers are taking fun seriously, and the 25th anniversary issue of the journal Current Biology was devoted to the biology of fun with many play researchers weighing in on the topic. Coppinger and Feinstein write, “We agree that there is good reason to believe that animals derive pleasure from play - indeed they do from all of their motor activities.” (my emphasis) While animals might derive pleasure from play, eating, and sex, it’s difficult to argue they feel good running from competitors or predators, but the necessary research has not been done.
Based on an extensive review of available literature, my colleagues Marek Spinka, Ruth Newberry, and I proposed that that play functions as training for the unexpected by increasing the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks, such as the loss of balance and falling over, and to enhance the ability of animals to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. To obtain this training, we suggested that animals actively seek and create unexpected situations in play and actively put themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations.
Comparative data from a wide range of species support this hypothesis. And, while it is difficult to test these ideas in the field, a study of mountain goat kids by Rachel Théoret-Gosselin, Sandra Hamel, and Steeve D. Côté called “The role of maternal behavior and offspring development in the survival of mountain goat kids“ showed that “play behaviors could enhance the emotional resilience to stress not only for unpredicted events but also in stressful group situations because play could reduce aggressiveness in gregarious species.” More field data are needed and this study is an excellent example of what needs to be done.
The play bow: Are dogs really confused when they play and what does this mean?
The authors also dismiss the detailed work that has been conducted on the play bow, a highly ritualized and stereotyped action by which animals signal their intention to play (please see accompanying image). When dogs and other animals bow they crouch on their forelimbs, raise their hind end, and occasionally wag their tail and bark. Coppinger and Feinstein write, “But we wonder if the so-called play bow in fact really has any adaptive, let alone cognitive, significance.” A good deal of very detailed research has been conducted on the bow by my research group and also by Barbara Smuts and her students that clearly supports the claim that bows are adaptive and have cognitive significance (please also see along with Mechtild Käufer’s excellent book called Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play and a comprehensive review essay by Elisabetta Palagi and eight other play experts called “Rough-and-tumble play as a window on animal communication“). The abstract for this excellent evidence-based and extremely significant up-to-date essay reads: Rough-and-tumble play (RT) is a widespread phenomenon in mammals. Since it involves competition, whereby one animal attempts to gain advantage over another, RT runs the risk of escalation to serious fighting. Competition is typically curtailed by some degree of cooperation and different signals help negotiate potential mishaps during RT. This review provides a framework for such signals, showing that they range along two dimensions: one from signals borrowed from other functional contexts to those that are unique to play, and the other from purely emotional expressions to highly cognitive (intentional) constructions. Some animal taxa have exaggerated the emotional and cognitive interplay aspects of play signals, yielding admixtures of communication that have led to complex forms of RT. This complexity has been further exaggerated in some lineages by the development of specific novel gestures that can be used to negotiate playful mood and entice reluctant partners. Play-derived gestures may provide new mechanisms by which more sophisticated communication forms can evolve. Therefore, RT and playful communication provide a window into the study of social cognition, emotional regulation and the evolution of communication systems.
The so-called play bow. Based on an unpublished student project in which “Border collies were confronted with normal and drugged roosters”, Coppinger and Feinstein believe that the “so-called play bow” is a posture assumed by an animal confused by its next move. They write, “... the play bow occurs when an animal is in a temporarily indeterminate state ... In short, the ‘playing’ animal is in conflict about its next move - and the play bow in fact looks just like a combination of multiple conflicting behavioral shapes.” The authors ignore detailed research that shows how play bows are extremely stereotyped (they are what ethologists call a modal action pattern), they vary in shape and duration depending on where they are performed in a play bout, and they allow a dog to perform a wide variety of movements from this posture. There are no data that support their belief and the student’s data are impossible to assess. And, it’s not clear at all why they refer to the “so-called play bow,” when many researchers have studied it and concluded, based on substantial data, that it is indeed used almost exclusively in the context of play both as a play invitation signal and also to maintain the play mood.
Let’s briefly think about what it means when a dog or other animal is confused, because every definition I can find indicates that there have to be cognitive and emotional underpinnings. In the case of dog-dog play, a simple view would be that Harry (a dog) wants to play with Mary (another dog) and that Harry isn’t sure what to do so he carefully pays attention to what Mary has done and is doing, and tries to factor this information into what she is likely to do in the future. In essence, Harry is pondering if he chooses to do “X” or “Y,” what will Mary do (and, of course, vice versa). Because play is indeed a hodge-podge of various actions, a kaleidoscopic behavior, on the authors’ view, Harry is confused, and to overcome his confusion he performs play bows.
There are no data that support the belief that dogs are confused when they play, however, there are data that show that there is a good deal of rapid of thinking and feeling on-the-run based on what Harry thinks and feels Mary is likely to do during the on-going interaction (and vice versa). These sorts of interactions make it clear that play is also a good place to observe and to study what researchers call a “theory of mind,“ because Harry and Mary need to pay very close attention to what each has done and is doing, and how that will influence what she or he is likely to do in the future (for further discussion please see Alexandra Horowitz’s essay called “Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play“). There is a good deal of mind-reading going on here as Harry and Mary make careful and rapid assessments and predictions of what their play partner is likely to do.
The cognitive and emotional underpinnings of “being confused” are rather rich, and do not lend themselves to simple mechanistic explanations that are favored by the authors. Available and ample data for a number of different species show there are predictable rules of play that cross species lines, namely, ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit you’re wrong. This is why play is so exciting to engage in and also so much fun to watch and to study. And, this is also why play among young and old dogs only rarely escalates into injurious aggression, although the authors recall an instance when play among four-week-old Border collie littermates was fatal and use this observation to claim that play “can itself cause significant harm” (p. 165). Indeed, Shyan, Fortune, and King (2003) reported that fewer than 0.5% of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters. Their data agree with our own observations on wild coyotes and free-running dogs at play.
Behavioral variability. Another example of a claim that is countered by available data centers on behavioral variability in young dogs and wolves. Coppinger and Feinstein write, “When we observe wolves, we see a similar picture. Wolf puppies are often noticeably more robust and varied in their play routines than dogs of the same size and age. This means, according to our hypothesis, that they should have more available motor patterns than the dogs do. That is in fact the case.“ (my emphasis) However, they offer no data.
Along these lines, years ago Robert Fagen, another play expert and author of the classic book Animal Play Behavior, analyzed the sequential variability of play and aggression in young dogs (beagles), wolves, and coyotes using data my students and I collected, and discovered that social play in the beagles was more variable than social play in wolves and coyotes of the same age (and coyote play was more variable than wolf play). These data were published in an essay I wrote with John Byers (“A critical reanalysis of the ontogeny of mammalian social and locomotor play: An ethological hornet’s nest,” in K. Immelmann, G. W. Barlow, L. Petrinovich, and M. Main, Eds., Behavioral Development, The Bielefeld Interdisciplinary Project. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 296-337, 1981) that the authors list in their reference section. And, we also found that young beagles and wolves shared the same basic ethogram and number of motor patterns. Perhaps working dogs such as Border collies are different from beagles and other dogs, but we really don’t know if this is the case.
The way in which the authors routinely dismiss a wealth of detailed research on animal play is characteristic of much of their book, that is essentially a tapestry of criticism using stories and unpublished projects in lieu of published data. It’s easy to see how one might walk away feeling that just about everyone else is wrong about dog behavior, cognition, emotions, and consciousness, and much of the research that has been done can be tossed into the garbage because it’s merely debris.
All in all, the one-sided assault on the ever-growing literature in the growing field called cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds) fails. How Dogs Work does not really tell us how dogs work, but rather provides an extremely narrow view of mainly working dogs as machines. I find the topic to be of great interest and am always eager to learn more about why some people favor reductionist and mechanistic accounts to explain the behavior of complex sentient beings (see, for example, Sara Shettleworth’s book, Fundamentals of Comparative Cognition). However, How Dogs Work doesn’t convince me that the authors’ over-arching views are tenable. Beliefs don’t substitute for data that have been reviewed by peers, and there are plenty of data that are readily available.
All in all, we really know far more than the authors offer, and for numerous wide-ranging and critical discussions of many different aspects of dog behavior I suggest Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior: The Scientific Study of Canis familiaris edited by Alexandra Horowitz, Adam Miklosi’s Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition, The Social Dog: Behavior and Cognition edited by Juliane Kaminski and Sarah Marshall-Pescini, and Mechtild Käufer’s Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play. For more on play I highly recommend the excellent and comprehensive review article by Elisabetta Palagi and her colleagues called “Rough-and-tumble play as a window on animal communication“ and (in addition to the references above) Sergio Pellis and Vivien Pellis’ The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience.
What’s so incredibly exciting about the study of play behavior and the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs and other animals is how much we’re learning about how individuals negotiate challenging and complex social and non-social situations by carefully analyzing what’s happening and by using hard-wired actions when needed (for example, when they need to do the right thing instantaneously or the first time they are faced with a specific situation and there’s no room for error), along with behavior patterns that require careful thought and flexibility motivated by what individuals are feeling about the situation in which they find themselves.
Please stay tuned for more on dog behavior, cognition, and emotions, because there is a lot of research being done by research groups around the world, and we still have a lot to learn. Dogs are amazing sentient beings who challenge us in many different ways.
I thank a number of people for help with this essay.
Note: In a number of email messages I've been asked if I knew what happened to the 1000’s of sled dogs dogs for whom Dr. Coppinger was responsible. On page 25 we’re told, “Some four thousand dogs ‘went through the yard’” when “Ray spent fifteen years breeding and training dogs that pull sleds.” I have no idea what happened to these dogs, but according to some people I consulted, this is an incredibly large number of dogs, an average of around 267 a year.
News: Guest Posts
Ample data show dogs and other animals remember the past and plan for the future
March 5 2015
A few days ago a colleague asked me if I'd seen an essay called "Dogs Don't Remember," published by Dr. Ira Hyman. I hadn't, and then, as I was doing an interview, a similar question about mental time travel by animals came up so I decided to pen a few comments about Dr. Hyman's claims that "Dogs don't remember what happened yesterday and don't plan for tomorrow" and "Even if they can't describe their memories,chimps may engage in mental time travel. My dogs, however, are stuck in an eternal present."
In his essay, Dr. Hyman also writes, "If I walk into the backyard, the dogs are overjoyed to see me and act like they haven't seen me for days. If I stay in the backyard, they quickly become bored with me. If I go inside and return after 10-15 minutes, my dogs are overjoyed to see me and act like they haven't seen me in days. They don't remember that I was in the backyard just a few minutes ago."
I don't see that dogs or other nonhuman animals (animals) greeting a friend(s) after a short absence says much about whether or not they remember that an individual(s) had just been there. Many animals engage in repeated and effusive greeting ceremonies when first seeing a friend and shortly thereafter. So too do humans.
What about future planning?
Given his interests in mental time travel, Dr. Hyman also writes, "Dogs don't plan for particular future events although they have a general expectation of when dinner will appear." He may be correct here. I don't know of any studies that show that dogs "plan for particular future events" but, for example, I have seen dogs and wild coyotes very cautiously approach an area where unfriendly individuals live and often have felt they were planning for possible combat. Nonetheless, I'll grant for now that it is difficult to differentiate planning for a particular event and having a general expectation that something might occur. However, I wouldn't be so sure that dogs don't do both until the proper studies are conducted.
Studies on nonhuman primates, birds, and other animals show, in fact, that they do remember the past and plan for the future. In an essay I wrote called "What Makes Us Uniquely Human?" that was concerned with mental time travel, I noted that the prominent primatologists Christophe and Hedwige Boesch-Ackerman wrote in their book The Chimpanzees of the Tai Forest that "A hunting chimpanzee 'not only has to anticipate the direction in which the prey will flee (recorded as a half anticipation), but also the speed of the prey so as to synchronize his movements to reach the correct height in the tree before the prey enters it (recorded as a full anticipation) . ... We also recorded a double anticipation when a hunter not only anticipates the actions of the prey, but also the effect the action of other chimpanzees will have on the future movements of the colobus, that is he does not anticipate what he sees (the escaping colobus), but how a future chimpanzee tactic will further influence the escaping monkeys." And, even birds remember the past and plan for the future (see, for example, "Can animals recall the past and plan for the future?" and for numerous examples of more recent research on a wide variety of animals please see).
There's no evidence that dogs are stuck in "an eternal present"
So, all in all, unless others and I are missing something, dogs do remember yesterday. If Dr. Hyman literally means by "yesterday" the preceding day—24 hours ago—perhaps he's correct. To the best of my knowledge, no animals other than humans look at or wear watches or use calendars. However, it doesn't seem that Dr. Hyman literally means yesterday, but rather, more generally, "the past," given the example he uses about dogs greeting him repeatedly even if he's only been absent for a short while.
There are many examples of dogs and other animals "remembering yesterday." Think of dogs and other animals who have been severely abused and who suffer from severe fear or depression for years on end, and also, for example, think of dogs who remember where they and others peed and pooped, dogs who remember where their friends and foes live, dogs who change their behavior based on what they learned in various sorts of learning experiments, and dogs who remember where they're fed and where they've cached food and other objects. The list goes on and on.
From an evolutionary point of view it would be somewhat odd and exceptional if mammals such as dogs and many other animals didn't remember yesterday and plan accordingly. Mental time travel truly is a very exciting field of research and I look forward to more studies that speak to the questions of how past experiences inform future behavior. And, as I mentioned above, there already are many detailed studies that show that mental time travel back to the past and ahead toward the future is not uniquely human.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence.
This story was originally published by psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.
June 13 2014
A century ago, pets didn’t even warrant the meager legal status of “property.” Now, they have more rights and protections than any wild animal on earth. How did we get here—and what happens next? That’s what Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs (Public Affairs) by David Grimm is all about.
Grimm discusses all aspects of the issue, providing readers with enough information so they can make their own decisions about whether humans should celebrate or condemn the better treatment of cats and dogs. We are entering a new age of pets/companion animals, one that is fundamentally transforming our relationship with them and reshaping the very fabric of society. Citizen Canine is an easy, enjoyable, must-read for all who want to know more about these fascinating beings.
By Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger
March 31 2014
Dogs, dogs, and more dogs: Fact, fiction, or something in between?
In their book, Ray and Lorna Coppinger promise a startling new understanding of many matters pertaining to canines, including how the domestic dog became a separate species from the wolf. Coppinger is a behavioral ecologist, he and his wife have studied dogs for many years, and their book is filled with personal stories.
The Coppingers accept that dogs descended from wolves, but they assert that they now constitute two separate species. Herein lies their “startling new” hypothesis. Dogs were the first domesticated animal and many theories have been offered to explain why and how domestication may have happened. Most of these theories, as do the Coppinger’s, rely on using present conditions to make claims on past cultures. This can only be a highly speculative exercise. The Coppingers criticize the more commonly held view of the domestication of dogs that “people created dogs by artificial selection,” during which individuals were chosen for such traits as friendliness, tameness, and trainability and then mated with one another. They call this the “Pinocchio hypothesis.” They contend that “the offspring of tamed (and/or trained) wolves do not inherit this tameness,” but they offer scant empirical evidence to support such a claim. They also point to the lack of archaeological evidence that Mesolithic people had access to a large enough population of trained or tamed wolves to select for tame behavior, but they never state how many wolves would be “big enough.”
Suffice it to say, we still know little that’s verifiable about the origins of dogs. But it’s not surprising that different authors balance facts and guesses differently and come up with a variety of plausible scenarios for the evolution of dogs. The Coppinger view is just another to add to the mix. This book will surely stimulate more discussion and, let’s hope, more detailed analyses of what we know and don’t know.
Other topics in this book include canine behavioral development, social behavior and communication, genetics, morphology and a discussion of why different breeds of dogs behave differently. Some of Coppinger’s assertions puzzle me, such as their claim that dogs who don’t live in packs don’t understand dominance relationships. A visit to any dog park or a glance at any textbook on animal behavior shows clearly that many different animals understand dominance relationships, even those who typically live alone. They also assert that “Intelligence is dependent on how many [brain] cells the dog has, and how those cells are wired together.” I know of no research that directly relates the slippery notion of intelligence to the number of cells packed into an individual’s cranium nor any that has studied in detail how nerve cells are wired together and what difference the “wiring patterns” make. Perhaps the authors mean cells in one specific region of the brain. Still, there have been no studies of which I’m aware in which individual differences in the number of cells (anywhere in the brain) have been related to individual differences in intelligence in domestic dogs or any other animal. They go on to write that, “Exactly what a dog can learn to do is genetic.” This assertion ignores the incredibly rich scientific literature on learned behavioral flexibility and diversity in dogs, and in many animals ranging from insects to the Great Apes.These claims demonstrate a lack of scientific rigor. But when the Coppingers claim that some aspects dog behavior provide a “window into the mind of the dog,” without citing Donald Griffin, the “father of cognitive ethology” who first put forth this idea, this omission borders on intellectual piracy.
Throughout the book there’s a disturbing lack of reference to numerous highly-regarded experts in this field (though they do cite my own work liberally). Instead the authors depend on people who have done little (or no) empirical work on dogs or wolves and whose work has not been published in peer-reviewed professional journals, the standard by which researchers are accredited. For example, if the authors had used Brian Hare and his colleague’s well-known and readily accessible work on studies of dog and wolf cognitive abilities, rather than the very preliminary research on which they depended, they’d never have claimed that, “Dogs as a rule are very poor at observational learning.” If such spurious claims prevail for subjects with which I’m not familiar then there’s a major problem in this book.
All in all, I found little in Dogs to be "startling" except for the lack of a clear indication where the line between facts and guesses lay. In a project of this magnitude, this troubles me. There are merits to the book. Advancing a new theory on the origin of dogs does spark examination and discussion, but on the whole Dogs left me unconvinced of the Coppinger's theory. The book is riddled with wholesale generalizations and relies too much on personal anecdotes and unsupported speculation to win my recommendation. Dog lovers and dogs themselves deserve better. Readers beware is the best advice I can offer.
Note: This review originally appeared in Bark in 2001. This book was published that year as well.
News: Guest Posts
We need more research to really know so right now we should keep the door open
March 14 2013
(This post is a response to Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience? by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C.)
Dogs are amazing nonhuman animal beings (animals) and anyone who's known a dog knows this. Just today Dr. Stanley Coren published a very interesting essay called "Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience?" and concluded, among other things:
"However, we know that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This means that a dog will have all of the basic emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love. However a dog will not have those more complex emotions like guilt, pride and shame." (After an email exchange with Dr. Coren about my response to his essay, he modified his conclusion to read, "However based on current research it seems likely that your dog will not have those more complex emotions like guilt, pride and shame.")While this conclusion is extremely interesting, it remains a hypothesis in that the necessary research has not really been done. So, until the detailed research is conducted we don't really know "that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old."
We also don't know if dogs experience guilt, pride, and shame. However, because it's been claimed that other mammals with whom dogs share the same neural bases for emotions do experience guilt, pride, and shame and other complex emotions (see also and and), there's no reason why dogs cannot. And, there's solid biological/evolutionary reasons to assume dogs can and do. Recall Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity in which the differences among species are seen to be variations in degree rather than kind - "If we have or experience something, 'they' (other animals) do too."
Do dogs feel guilt?
One more point needs to be made concerning doggy guilt. Consider the research conducted by Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog and Psychology Today writer. As I noted in a previous essay called "The Genius of Dogs and The Hidden Life of Wolves", Dr. Horowitz's research is often misinterpreted. For example, in their book titled The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods consider Dr. Horowitz's research on doggy guilt (pp. 183ff). They write that Horowitz "conducted an experiment to see whether dogs can feel guilty" but they misinterpreted just what Dr. Horowitz was actually trying to do. Her research did indeed show that people were not all that good at reading guilt in their dog, however her data do not show that dogs cannot feel guilt. I frequently hear people say that Dr. Horowitz's project showed dogs cannot feel guilt and this is not so (please see Dr. Horowitz's comment about this error).
Let's keep the door open about the emotional lives of dogs and other animals and also extend a hearty thanks to Dr. Coren for once again writing a very interesting and stimulating essay.
Note: One can also question the value of comparing young humans with other animals. I don't find these comparisons to be especially compelling and other researchers have agreed that they are fraught with difficulties as are many cross-species comparisons concerning the cognitive and emotional capacities of individuals of different species. In a previous essay I wrote, "Animals do what they need to do to be card-carrying members of their species and we need to remember that numerous nonhuman animals outperform us in many different ways." Of course we are exceptional in various arenas as are other animals. Perhaps we should replace the notion of human exceptionalism with species or individual exceptionalism, a move that will force us to appreciate other animals for who they are, not who or what we want them to be.
Dispelling the Myths of Dog Training
February 13 2013
Many books about dogs cross my desk, and a few immediately catch my eye. Often, it’s simply a title or a cover photo that attracts my attention. Mark Derr’s How the Dog Became the Dog was one of the more recent ones, as was Stephen Budiansky’s The Truth About Dogs some years ago. Unfortunately, Budiansky’s book had so many errors in it that I became suspicious of any book with the word “truth” in the title.
So, when I received a copy of Toni Shelbourne’s new book, The Truth About Wolves and Dogs, I opened it cautiously and began reading. In a nutshell, I was very pleased, especially with Shelbourne’s candor about what we know and don’t know, and her dismantling of training methods that entail abusive behavior on the part of the human trainer, such as those used by Cesar Millan.
The Truth About Wolves and Dogs is a practical guide to who wolves are; who their descendants, our best friends, are; and how what we know about the behavior of wild and domesticated animals can be used to better understand them and help us adapt to their world and them to ours. A significant take-home message is that dogs are not wolves. They are domesticated animals who have undergone their own unique changes as they became dogs.
I also found the discussions of dominance (it is not a myth) and the notion of alpha animals to be well grounded. Finally, I like the way Shelbourne ends her book, imploring readers to “Say ‘no’ to inappropriate training methods … Let’s have a revolution and let our dogs be dogs. Let them be our faithful companions, acknowledge and welcome the fact that they have thoughts, feelings and express themselves, just as we do.” Amen.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Of course they do
November 13 2012
One of the hottest questions in the study of animal behavior is, “Do animals have emotions?” And the simple and correct answer is, “Of course they do.” Just look at them, listen to them and, if you dare, smell the odors that pour out when they interact with friends and foes. Look at their faces, tails, bodies and, most importantly, their eyes. What we see on the outside tells us a lot about what’s happening inside animals’ heads and hearts. Animal emotions aren’t all that mysterious.
When I first began my studies three decades ago—asking the question, “What does it feel like to be a dog or a wolf?”—researchers were almost all skeptics who spent their time wondering if dogs, cats, chimpanzees and other animals felt anything. Since feelings don’t fit under a microscope, these scientists usually didn’t find any, and, as I like to say, I’m glad I wasn’t their dog!
But now there are far fewer skeptics; prestigious scientific journals publish essays on joy in rats, grief in elephants and empathy in mice and no one blinks. The question of real importance is not whether animals have emotions, but why animal emotions have evolved. Simply put, emotions have evolved as adaptations in numerous species. They serve as a social glue to bond animals with one another and also catalyze and regulate a wide variety of social encounters among friends and foes.
Emotions permit animals to behave adaptively and flexibly, using various behavior patterns in a wide variety of venues. Research has shown that mice are empathic rodents, but it turns out they’re fun-loving as well. We also read accounts of pleasure-seeking iguanas; amorous whales; angry baboons; elephants who suffer from psychological flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD—elephants have a huge hippocampus, a brain structure in the limbic system that’s important in processing emotions); grieving otters, magpies and donkeys; sentient fish; and a sighted dog who serves as a “seeing-eye dog” for his blind canine buddy. Today, the paradigm has shifted to such an extent that the burden of “proof” now falls on those who still argue that animals don’t experience emotions.
Many researchers also recognize that we must be anthropomorphic (attribute human traits to animals) when we discuss animal emotions, but that if we do it carefully, we can still give due consideration to the animals’ points of view. No matter what we call it, researchers agree that animals and humans share many traits, including emotions. Thus, we’re not inserting something human into animals; rather, we’re identifying commonalities and then using human language to communicate what we observe. Being anthropomorphic is doing what’s natural and necessary to understand animal emotions.
We might expect to find close, enduring and endearing emotional relationships between members of the same species, but improbable relationships also occur between animals of wildly different species, even between animals who are normally predator and prey! Such is the case for Aochan, a rat snake, who befriended a dwarf hamster named Gohan at Tokyo’s Mutsugoro Okoku Zoo, and a lioness in northern Kenya who adopted a baby oryx (usually an appetizer before a larger meal) on five different occasions.
It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds) and social neuroscience support the view that numerous and diverse animals have rich and deep emotional lives. (Here I focus on mammals, although there are data showing that birds and perhaps fish experience various emotions as well as pain and suffering.)
Charles Darwin’s well-accepted ideas about evolutionary continuity—that differences among species are differences in degree rather than kind—argue strongly for the presence of animal emotions, empathy and moral behavior. Continuity allows us to connect the “evolutionary dots” among different species to highlight similarities in evolved traits, including individual feelings and passions. All mammals (including humans) share neuroanatomical structures, such as the amygdala and neurochemical pathways in the limbic system that are important for feelings.
Mirror neurons help explain feelings such as empathy. Research on these neurons supports the notion that individuals can feel the feelings of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand another individual’s behavior by imagining ourselves performing the same behavior and then mentally projecting ourselves into the other individual’s shoes.
To what degree various species share this capability remains to be seen, but there is compelling evidence that humans are not alone in possessing it. Diana monkeys and chimpanzees help one another acquire food, and elephants comfort others in distress. Mirror neurons also help explain observations of rhesus monkeys who won’t accept food if another monkey suffers when they do so, and empathic mice who react more strongly to painful stimuli after they observed other mice in pain.
The borders between “them” and “us” are murky and permeable, and the study of animal emotions helps inform the big question of just who we are. Another big question for which answers are revealed by studying animal passions is, “Can animals be moral beings?” In my development of the phenomenon that I call “wild justice,” I argue that they can. Many animals know right from wrong and live according to a moral code.
When people tell me that they love animals because they’re feeling beings and then go on to abuse them, I tell them that I’m glad they don’t love me. I often ask researchers who conduct invasive work with animals or people who work on factory farms, “Would you do that to your dog?” Some are startled to hear this question, but if people won’t do something to their own dog that they do daily to other dogs or to mice, rats, cats, monkeys, pigs, cows, elephants or chimpanzees, we need to know why. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it’s their emotions that should inform our discussions and our actions on their behalf.
Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other animals. We must never forget this. When it comes to animal welfare, we can always do better. Most of the time, “good welfare” is not good enough.
News: Guest Posts
LA is considering a ban on the sale of commercially-bred animals
August 23 2012
Despite laws and regulations protecting companion animals, these magnificent beings still can be treated very abusively with little to no penalty to their human guardians (aka owners) because in the eyes of the law they and other nonhuman animals (animals) are considered to be mere property.
In an earlier essay I wrote about the staggering number of homeless animals who need a safe home and puppy mills are notorious for severely mistreating animals as breeding machines. Carol Bradley's excellent book Saving Gracie: How One Dog Escaped the Shadowy World of American Puppy Mills is an excellent read about Gracie's rescue from a Pennsylvania puppy mill and the horrors of puppy mills in general. Top of Form
I remain a hopeful optimist and now there's some good news on the horizon for homeless dogs, cats, and rabbits in Los Angeles. This week a Los Angeles City Council committee “approved a proposed ordinance that would require every dog, cat or rabbit sold for profit in the city to be obtained from a shelter or humane society.”
I know many people have rescued animals with whom they've shared their home and the human and nonhumans have had wonderful lives together. Jethro, who I rescued from the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, and I had a wonderful life together (he also rescued me) and he turned out to be a “love muffin” who saved the lives of other species.
On a recent trip to the give a talk for the Wisconsin Humane Society I met Maddy, who reminded me of Jethro, and had I been able to take her home with me I would have done so, along of course, with all of the other wonderful animals who lived in this remarkable facility. I was thrilled to learn that Maddy was adopted shortly after I was there.
The Los Angeles ordinance may be voted on soon so there's time to contact the Los Angeles City Council to voice your opinion. Please take the time to do so. Millions of animals will be grateful for your efforts and we can hope that other cities will follow up on this ordinance and other species will also be included.
There really is no reason to buy a commercially bred animal.
Culture: Readers Write
The human-dog interconnection is the way forward
August 7 2012
Our relationships with animals are challenging, complicated, frustrating, awkward, ambiguous, paradoxical and range all over the place.We already know a lot about animals’ lives and what they want, more than we often give ourselves credit for. Indeed, their lives aren’t all that private, hidden or secret.We know that animals experience deep feelings, and care about what happens to them.When people say they’re not sure if dogs have emotions, if they feel joy or grief, I say I’m glad I’m not their dog.When people tell me that they love animals and then harm or kill them, I tell them I’m glad they don’t love me.
The best way to make the world a more compassionate and peaceful place for all animal beings, to increase our compassion footprint, is to “mind” them.“Minding animals” means that we must mind other beings by recognizing that they have active and deep minds and feelings.We must also mind them as their caretakers in a human-dominated world, one in which their interests are continually trumped in deference to ours.We easily mind dogs, and this close relationship is a way forward.
It is also essential for people with varied expertise and interests to talk to one another, to share what we know about our animal kin and to use this knowledge for bettering their—and as a result, our—lives. And what could be a better place to do this than at dog parks?
There are many ways of knowing, and figuring out how science, the humanities and non-academics—including those interested in animal protection, conservation and environmentalism (with concerns ranging from individuals to ecosystems)—can learn from one another is essential. We observe animals, gawk at them in wonder, experiment on them, eat them, wear them, write about them, draw and paint them, move them from here to there as we “redecorate nature,” make decisions for them without their consent, and represent them in many and various ways, yet we often ignore who they are and what they want.
We also double-cross animals. I can imagine an utterly exhausted polar bear asking, “Where’s the ice?” as she attempts to swim with her offspring from one floe to another as she has in years past, only to discover that the ice is gone due to climate change. Despite global attempts to protect animals from wanton use and abuse, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working; “good welfare” just isn’t good enough. Excuses justifying animal exploitation, such as “Well, it’s okay, I’m doing this in the name of science” or “in the name of this or that,” usually mean “in the name of humans.”We’re a very arrogant and self-centered lot.
Existing laws and regulations allow animals living on earth, in water and in air to be treated in regrettable ways that demean us as a species. Indeed, in the eyes of the law, animals are mere property and thus can be treated like backpacks, couches and bicycles. The animals’ own eyes tell us they don’t like this at all. They do, of course, have a point of view.
Enough is enough.We all need to coexist peacefully and gracefully, and it’s mutually beneficial to make every attempt to do so in the most compassionate ways possible. Compassion for animals will make for more compassion among people, and that is what we need as we journey into the future. I’m reminded of something Albert Schweitzer once wrote: “Until he extends his circle of compassion for all living things, man will not himself find peace.” Of course, animals aren’t living “things,” but let’s not worry about that right now.
Each of us can make a difference.We can make positive changes for all beings by weaving compassion, empathy, respect, dignity, spirituality, peace and love into our lives. We also need to focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t, or what hasn’t worked in the past. I’m an unrelenting dreamer who remains unflaggingly hopeful about what we can do collectively if we put our hearts and heads together and agree to work harmoniously toward shared goals.
We always need to mind animals—as well as earth, water and air—from deep in our hearts. We can always add more compassion to the world. Animals are asking us to treat them better or to leave them alone, and we need to listen to them now. Time isn’t on our side.We’re truly lucky to be able to work together to increase our compassion footprint. Animals and future generations will thank us for our efforts. So let’s get on with it. Never say never. Let dogs lead the way!
News: Guest Posts
We all need someone we can lean on, and so do they.
June 1 2012
Last night I watched a most wonderful documentary about the many ways in which rescued dogs can help rescue humans, each of whom needs someone to lean on. It's called Shelter Me. A synopsis of the docmentary can be seen here. A snippet should be all that's needed to get you to watch it:
"The first episode shows how shelter pets are helping our returning war veterans cope with PTSD. We go inside a women’s prison, where inmates train shelter dogs to become service animals for people with disabilities. We also see the journey of two stray dogs, from the day they are picked up on the streets and brought to the shelter until the day they become a beloved family pet. Shelter Me is about redemption, hope, helping others and making a difference
We all need someone we can lean on, and so do they (other animals). I was moved to tears of joy as I watched the bond develop between the humans and their new found companions. I think you will also be incredibly moved by this most-welcomed documentary that spills over with hope for those beings, nonhuman and human, who need help in a demanding world. While some might question the scientific data about such relationships, these stories show clearly that dogs and humans form incredibly strong and reciprocal social bonds. Each becomes the life-line, the much-needed oxygen, for the other.
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