Do You Know What Your Dog is Thinking?

It is human instinct to attempt analysis of our pets' thoughts. Many people truly believe that they have their dog figured out. But are our...


It is human instinct to attempt analysis of our pets’ thoughts. Many people truly believe that they have their dog figured out. But are our antrhopomorphic assessments of canine behavior accurate?

My years as a vet have caused me to suspect that some people have no idea whatsoever how their pet’s mind works. Consider the following true story.

A gentleman brought his dog to see me. The dog had urinated inside the house the previous day. The man thought he knew why.

Earlier on the day of the incident, the man had caught the dog sleeping on the sofa. The man believed that the dog knew the sofa was of limits. The dog therefore became embarrassed and responded later by urinating on the floor.

This made no sense to me on the face of things. Why would a dog respond to embarrassment by soiling the house?

Furthermore, as the man was telling me this story, the dog was busily grooming his hind end. Is an animal that will lick its anus in front of a complete stranger capable of feeling embarrassed? I didn’t think so, and I said as much to the owner. He was shocked, and I had no come back for his retort:

“Well doc, he may lick his butt here in the room, but, see, he knows he’s not allowed on the sofa, so he got embarrassed!”

A recent issue of Time contained a fascinating article on canine thought. I was riveted as I read it. The article discusses attempts by researchers to learn more about how the dog mind truly works. It also discusses the evolution of dogs and a fascinating experiment in Siberia in which foxes have been bred to be remarkably similar to dogs over 40 generations.

But I was most interested in the article’s revelations on canine thought. Here are some quotes.

Trying to plumb the canine mind is a favorite pastime of dog owners. “Everyone feels like an expert on their dog,” says Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist at Barnard College and author of the new book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. But scientists had carried out few studies to test those beliefs–until now.

The first rule for scientists studying dogs is, Don’t trust your hunches. Just because a dog looks as if it can count or understand words doesn’t mean it can. “We say to owners, Look, you may have intuitions about your dog that are valuable,” says Hauser. “But they might be wrong.”

We’ve all seen guilty dogs slinking away with lowered tails, for example. Horowitz wondered if they behave this way because they truly recognize they’ve done something wrong, so she devised an experiment. First she observed how dogs behaved when they did something they weren’t supposed to do and were scolded by their owners. Then she tricked the owners into believing the dogs had misbehaved when they hadn’t. When the humans scolded the dogs, the dogs were just as likely to look guilty, even though they were innocent of any misbehavior. What’s at play here, she concluded, is not some inner sense of right and wrong but a learned ability to act submissive when an owner gets angry. “It’s a white-flag response,” Horowitz says.

While this kind of manipulation may be unsettling to us, it reveals how carefully dogs pay attention to humans and learn from what they observe.

It turns out that dogs may not feel guilt. The question of embarrassment, however, is still open.

Photo: Duke has nothing to feel guilty or embarrassed about.

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