Reading Dogs Reading Us 1

By Horowitz, Alexandra | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Reading Dogs Reading Us 1


Horowitz, Alexandra, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


Thank you for having me here at the American Philosophical Society, and thanks to Judith Shapiro for inviting me. I study- believe it or not-dog behavior and cognition, a relatively new and exciting field, especially for those of us who are interested in learning more about things right in front of us, things we thought we knew everything about.

In this paper, I am going to talk a little about the "dogness" of dogs. There are lots of ways to approach this topic-i.e., beginning with domestication, talking about intelligence (a somewhat fraught topic), and looking at different breeds-but what I'm particularly interested in is a recent approach in science of which I'm an advocate. This approach tries to understand the dog's point of view-what it is like to be a dog- using the research of cognition and sensory abilities of dogs to guide us. The ultimate idea is to improve our relationships with our dogs.

I'll begin with a short introduction to our species of interest. I'll then talk about some of the research indicating how good dogs are at "reading us" (i.e., reading our behavior), as well as my own research indicating that we are not as good at "reading dogs." Finally, I'll provide more details about dogs that may allow us to improve our understanding of the dog's point of view.

To begin: What is the dog? This question is not as straightforward as it may seem. Dogs are not quite wolves, nor are they furry people (although we sometimes treat them as such). The beginning of the story of how we got from Canis lupis to Canis familiaris is that the present-day dog and the present-day wolf share a common ancestor: a wolf-like creature from which they both descended. The dogs then diverged from these wolves and became domesticated. In my view, the best story of domestication is that about 10,000 or 14,000 years ago, early wolves exploited a new ecological niche: us. We (i.e., early humans) stopped being nomadic; we started settling in permanent spaces; and we threw things out. We created trash right outside our settlements.

This trash was a potential food source for those wolves that (a) self-selected; (b) were less fearful of humans; and (c) were willing to be scavengers, not just predators. After this early self-selection happened, apparently humans began the process of artificial selection, based on their preferences for certain behaviors, such as canids that attack strangers or wolves who are considered "really cute." "Cute" might mean that the animal had a large head or really large eyes-more or less the exaggeration of features we see in human infants. This story has been tested in some sense by reproducing the process with foxes.

In the mid-twentieth century, the Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev decided to study foxes being raised for fur. He selectively cross-bred some of them, beginning with 130 and choosing the ones with the least reactivity to him. This strategy was integral to his method: the least reactive animals were the ones who were not scared off when he approached them with food; indeed, they might approach him and even take the food from him. He cross-bred those, and the others were used for fur.

After 30 generations over about 40 years, what he had developed was a "domesticated elite": 75% of his foxes were tamed. They were whimpering for his attention; they had floppy ears like dogs; they had piebald coats and short legs; their tails went up and curled; and they had smaller skulls. He had, in essence, re-created a domesticated canid. His experiment suggests that domestication might have happened similarly.

I mentioned that dogs and wolves share a common ancestor. This fact will provide one entry into an understanding of dogs; that is, looking to the wolf explains some of the dog's behavior. But there's an important difference between the species, and I want to focus first on one element of that, specifically, what makes the dog different and has made him so successful among humans. …

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