Do You Underestimate Your Dog?
I have a lot to say about dogs. Which is highly curious since the reason I share my life with a dog is precisely because of the wordless communication that fills my introverted soul. I love Zanzi. So much so, I had to write a book about our rather tumultuous early relationship. As I wrote that book, I did a lot of reading. For a long time, these wonderful canine beings who shared our homes weren't career-making research subjects. But lately this has changed. One of my favorite books of all time was written by a neuroscientist who became the first to MRI his own dog, Callie, who he trained to be able to enjoy getting in the machine with treats:
"How Dogs Love Us"
Most importantly of all, with Berns' help, I'd like to offer an antidote to the very pervasive 'dog whisperer' style of training. Berns summarized my own view on being careful who we let guide us in how to interact with our dogs:
The first flaw is our tendency to anthropomorphize, projecting our own thoughts and feelings onto things that aren't ourselves.
The second flaw is the reliance on wolf behavior to interpret dog behavior, termed lupomorphism. While it is true that dogs and wolves share a common ancestor, that does not mean that dogs are descended from wolves. This is an important distinction. The evolutionary trajectories of wolves and dogs diverged when some of these ancestors start hanging out with proto-humans. Those that stuck around became dogs, and those that stayed away became modern wolves. Modern wolves behave differently from dogs and they have very different social structures. Their brains are different too. Interpreting dog behavior through the lens of wolf behavior is even worse than anthropomorphizing: it's a human anthropomorphizing wolf behavior and using that flawed impression as an analogy for dog behavior.
Wolf analogies have led to many flawed training strategies based on the idea that the human must be the pack leader. Unfortunately, there is no scientific basis for using the wolf's social structure as the model for the dog human relationship. (p.17)
If we start to realize how inaccurate a great deal of current training advice is, we might also wonder if our current beliefs about most of our dogs capabilities is accurate. Yesterday, Laurent shared a link (http://www.constantinealexander.net/2016/11/your-dog-remembers-what-you-did.html) to a study about dogs having episodic memory and I think the study, which involved training, is minor in comparison to what happens in my house every day.
Now, of course, our dogs cannot state or write anything, but they do things all the time. Do they have memories of 'autodemonstrable' events that cause them to perform actions? I think the answer is a resounding YES! I also want you to note the word emotion in the definition - it is a crucial part to the salience of a situation to your dog and a key as to whether actions that occur together are important enough to create a memory.
I can prove
Zanzi has episodic memory in many ways. She knows when I do specific
actions - and there are a few of them - that I intend to go out by
myself. She often goes to her crate just when I put my phone into my
purse, for example. I never trained her in any way, it is just a part
of the process of me leaving. She noticed this action occurs and
made the association herself. It also helps that I never take her for
a walk with my phone or purse - her walks are for her. So there is a clear pattern of my behavior that became associated with what she should do. Certain items
of clothing also reside in her memory as indicators of my intention
to go out without her.
Dogs have basal ganglia and limbic systems that look almost the same as ours
I can also prove the length of her memory to be 15 minutes or longer. When I 'cook' (thaw or rehydrate) her food before we walk - she pulls me back home after she completes the point of the walk. She knows dinner is waiting. If dinner is not waiting, she will want to linger on the walk. Her behavior on the return part of the walk is dependent on whether she remembers that her dinner is waiting.
If dogs do possess episodic memory, this has to crumble the pack leader theory – dogs are not looking for us to issue constant displays of dominance. In fact, these commands based on a very fallacious understanding are likely making the canine-human relationship very troubled. Episodic memory means that your dog is learning by observing and categorizing things that occur together, in order to build patterns of the behavior(s) to perform alongside the things that you do regularly.
Of course, dogs don't over-complicate things. Even with episodic memory, they don't dwell in conceptual theories. I think of the common training advice to always go through a door first, so that your dog doesn't have to take control. This is a lot of complex thinking wrapped up to seem like common sense to humans. We know that doors are what separate spaces. We know that going first is a standard part of the chain of command. We know that the first person through a door is most likely to get shot. Dogs are just eager to relieve themselves. Perhaps eager to get you to throw that ball that comes along when there is enough space for running. But they do not spend an entire walk evaluating whether to protect you, or to be in charge of dealing with every stimulus, because they crossed a threshold first.
Up next...what dogs really respond to....
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Can you think of actions you do, that your dog has learned to associate with actions they do, that would indicate they are using episodic memory?