Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Don't Mind the Dog

I enjoyed this Slate article about dog brains. The bottom line? Dogs just aren't as human as you think they are. When you attribute human emotions and (especially) motives to dogs, you're probably wrong.

The problem is we try to understand canine behavior the same way we understand human behavior: we try to put ourselves in the shoes of whoever we're trying to understand, and then imagine what we'd do. That means we're employing a theory of mind -- which is all well and good, until you do it with a critter that doesn't have a mind (yes, it has a brain, but that ain't the same thing), or at least not a mind much like ours.

And the problem goes deeper, though the author doesn't put it exactly this way. We don't merely apply a theory of mind to understand dogs; we implicitly assume dogs, too, have a theory of mind that they use to understand us. If you think your dog is peeing on the couch to punish you for leaving it alone too much, you're not just assuming the dog feels anger in the same way we do (already questionable). You're also attributing to the dog the notion of punishment, which means considering how its actions might motivate a change in your behavior. So in your theory of the dog's mind, you're including a model of your own mind. A meta-theory of mind, if you will.

Anyone planning to leave me an indignant comment about how human your dog is, how you really understand each other, etc. -- please read the article first. (And for the record, I love dogs. Most of 'em, anyway.)


Hugin said...


Any kind of social interaction between living organisms demand that the interacting individuals employ a representation of other individuals' purposeful behavior, i.e. a theory of intentionality. The concept of mind is problematic, since it uncertain what is meant. All living organisms who interact socially are aware of the other individuals' intentionality. However, only humans are self-aware, i.e. aware of their own intentionality.

One example. You step on a dog's tail. the dog barks "angrily". You learn that it hurts, and probably try to avoid stepping on its tail in the future. The dog has employed a representation of you as an intentional being, trying to minimize your risk of being bitten, and you have employed a representation of the dog as an intentional being, trying to minimize the risk of being stepped on. Furthermore, since you are self-aware, you can muse on this intentionality of the dog, and perhaps write a comment on it.

Hugin said...

You were right,

I should have read the article before posting my comment. Still there are several problems with the line of reasoning in the article.

First of all, the concept of mind is problematic, since tends to confuse awareness (which all living organisms have) with self-awareness (which only humans display, and only after roughly the age of 3).

Second of all, dogs understand time, otherwise goal-directed behavior would be impossible. However, their time-horizon when making decisions is short, only a few minutes at most.

Third of all, instincts are no replacement for decision-making or intentionality for non-human species. Instincts are preprogrammed behavioral repertoires that are used creatively by organisms, usually when they are useful for reaching a goal. However, the organism still needs to decide what instincts to employ at any given moment. Decision-making DOES NOT require self-awareness.

Still, the intepretation that the dog in the article was frightened is probably true. But dogs are not all that different from humans. The key difference is that humans can handle complexity on a different level from dogs, i.e. making concrete verbal representations in the case of children, or abstract representation in the case of adults. This possibility comes from having a language, which is also a prerequisite for self-awareness, or what most people call consciousness. However, consciousness is as problematic a concept as mind.

Carina said...

I found it strange that the article lumped Heather's original vet in with the others assuming a theory of mind. The vet called it "separation anxiety," and prescribed anxiety medication. Prescribing retraining would have been more helpful, but the author comes to a very similar diagnosis: the dog, separated from its companion and authority figure, became anxious.

I'd interpret the vet's anthropomorphizing as a thin attempt to humor her, since it's basically accurate. Telling an owner that, no, her dog is not out for vengeance, because look--it's a DOG! would be bad for business.

Caliban said...

This is why cats are better! No one has any pretensions to understand them. :)

Glen Whitman said...

Carina -- I agree, the author was probably being a bit uncharitable to the vet.

Anders -- This is admittedly outside my field. But I don't think it's necessary to invoke a problematic Cartesian mind-body dichotomy to talk about "minds" and whether people and dogs have them. I think of the mind as a set of emergent properties that result from having a large cerebral cortex; the properties include things like self-awareness, high-level abstraction, and consciousness. Animals that don't have as large a cerebral cortex will likely possess these properties to a lesser extent or not at all.

With respect your example about stepping on the dog's tail, I don't think it's necessary for the dog to employ a "representation of you as an intentional being." Maybe it does employ such a representation, but I don't see how it's required. The dog can simply follow an instinct to growl when harmed, and (possibly) note the effectiveness of the growl in deterring future tail-stomping incidents.

gt said...

Enjoyed the post title.
You aren't just talking about dogs.
It's the solipcism issue: are others like me, or different?
If we can figure out and retrain dogs, how about republicans? women? children?
It would be interesting to know if the people who learn to deanthropomorphize dogs end up with more, or less, of a sense of having a companion. (I would think more, but am not sure.)
One common variant of the problem is people who think of governments as being like people; we could probably get better results by treating government like giant squid.(no offense intended to those of your readers who may be giant squid.)