Q&A with Author Frans de Waal

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
By Claudia Kawczynska, September 2016
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Frans de Waal presents a fascinating history of the study of animal behavior and cognition. De Waal, who says his love of animals dates to his childhood, is a worldrenowned primatologist and ethologist and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. We asked him to shift gears and give us his take on the canine mind.

Bark: Konrad Lorenz (co-founder of your field) wrote Man Meets Dog in 1954. And while it is still one of the best, if slightly flawed, books on canine behavior, why did it take so long for ethologists, and other researchers, to to study dog behavior?

Frans de Waal: Dogs were (and are) considered imperfect subjects of study because they are “unnatural.” Many ethologists, including Lorenz, feel that natural behavior under naturalistic conditions is what we should focus on, and the dog is a product of artificial breeding. Lorenz liked all animals, however, and so couldn’t resist describing his dog stories, and we should all be grateful.

Clearly, the dog is a mammal with many typical mammalian tendencies, so now scientists are finally seeing that the fact that they are domesticated also has advantages. For example, they are eager to work with us, they are generally not dangerous, they are smart, they have empathy. Lots of great things can be done with them. And they are easier to work with than other large mammals, such as apes and dolphins.

Bk: Can you give an example of how other species, including dogs, demonstrate empathy?

FdW: American psychologist Carolyn Zahn-Waxler sought to determine at what age children begin to comfort family members who sobbed or cried “ouch.” It turns out that children do so at one year of age. In the same study, Zahn-Waxler accidentally discovered that household dogs react similarly. Appearing as upset as the children by the distress-faking family members, the dogs hovered over them, putting their heads in their laps with what looked like great concern. This work has recently been repeated in different studies, more focused on the dogs themselves, and it is clear that these animals show empathic concern for humans.

The ancestor of the dog, the wolf, probably behaves the same. If “man is wolf to man,” as Thomas Hobbes liked to say, we should take this in the best possible way, including a tendency to comfort the whimpering and help the needy. This insight, of course, would undermine much of political philosophy based on Hobbes’ dog-eat-dog view of nature.

Bk: Do you think human bias has played a part in some of the canine cognitive studies?

FdW: At first, dogs were rated as more intelligent than even apes and wolves because they followed the direction of human pointing (at a bucket with food), whereas apes and wolves ignored human directions. Then it was found that wolves raised in a human home will act more like dogs, following human pointing, suggesting that the earlier failures with wolves were probably due to lack of bonding and attention. The same probably applies to the apes. Now, dogs are seen not just as smart but rather, as finely in tune with the species that bred them.

They have a special bond with us, as also reflected in the oxytocin studies, which show that human-dog contact increases this “cuddle” hormone in both. The dog is perhaps the only animal that performs at its peak when tested by humans, whereas many other animals are not so into us, hence need to be tested in different ways. This is yet more proof that cognitive testing of animals always needs to take into account what kind of animal we are dealing with: we need to find the most species-appropriate way.

Bk: In contrast to behaviorism’s reward/ punishment model, ethology views animals as “seeking, wanting and striving.” Why do you feel the latter is a more productive way to look at animals?

FdW: The behaviorists (followers of B. F. Skinner) totally overlooked natural animal tendencies. Trying to explain all behavior on the basis of reward and punishment, they could not explain why you can train a dog to fetch, but not a rabbit or a goat.

Predators are obsessed with small moving objects, which we see every day in our dogs as well as cats. Their interest sets up a learning situation where they are going to absorb many lessons about how to catch these moving objects, how to trick them, how to outsmart them. Dogs eagerly learn all of those things.

Reward and punishment are only small parts of the story; their natural hunting instinct is, in fact, the driver of the process. This is where behaviorism failed. It had some good ideas, many of them applicable to animal training, but its perspective was far too narrow as it lacked attention to natural tendencies and the evolution of behavior.

Bk: Why do you think Darwin used dogs to illustrate emotional continuity?

FdW: Darwin was a dog lover, and he knew that to get his message across about the continuity between human and animal emotions, the dog would be the easiest way to communicate. Darwin mostly worked on the expression of emotions (it’s hard to know what animals feel, but we can at least document how they signal various states, such as fear, submission, anger, affection). Of course, the dog is very expressive with its postures, facial expressions, tail-wagging, growling and so on. Darwin knew that most people could relate to all of this, and would have more trouble if he described other species that people have less exposure to.

Bk: In terms of an evolutionary advantage, how important is it for a species to have self-awareness, or theory of mind?

FdW: These capacities require large brains. In terms of recognizing oneself in the mirror or understanding what others know, the champion species are apes, dolphins, elephants and perhaps also the corvids (crow family). This doesn’t mean that dogs lack them. They probably have similar understanding, but not as fully expressed.

The more complex the societies of a species, the more demands there are on cognition, and perhaps canines do not need social understanding at the level of an ape or dolphin. I feel we need to judge animals on what they are good at and what they need to know to survive. In this regard, canines have lots of specialized skills, often related to their sense of smell, their pursuit of prey, their need for tight cooperation and so on. This is where we should test them out, and probably find remarkable skills.

Bk: Clearly, emotions are important to the understanding of behavior; how do they relate to and inform one another?

FdW: In my book, I left emotions out on purpose because I felt it would muddle things. But there can be no studies of cognition without attention to the emotions, and vice versa. The two go hand in hand. In our famous capuchin monkey experiment with the grape and the cucumber, for example, you can see not only that the monkeys judge what they get relative to what others get, but also their strong emotional response. You cannot study the one and ignore the other.

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.