Can Dogs Think—Really?

Regardless of how the canine mind works, hunting dogs enrich our lives in both spirit and sport.

Who among us hasn’t watched a favored gun dog complete a challenging task—let’s say a difficult retrieve—then told ourselves, “There’s a lot going on inside that dog’s head.” It seems to be an ingrained human trait to believe our dogs think as we do, solve problems logically and are, in fact, canine geniuses. But are they? Or is that belief more of a need on our part than human-like thought on theirs? Indeed, in the face of periodic behavior that should make us question whether anything at all is going on inside our dogs’ heads, we justify their oddball actions by telling ourselves that even Einstein had bad days.

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We commonly brag about our dogs’ extraordinary accomplishments, but too often we relate those feats in terms of human intelligence, not canine mental processes. Even the rigorous world of science occasionally falls prey to the need to compare the minds of dogs to those of humans, and explain canine behavior only to the degree in which dogs are perceived to think like people.

For many decades, centuries even, the argument—in both the scientific and popular press—has raged over whether dogs have minds and can think rationally—always with “rationally” meaning like humans. Historically, this debate had two just sides: dogs as reasoning thinkers or dogs as instinctive robots. The pendulum of opinion has long swung back and forth between anthropomorphists (those who ascribe human attributes to dogs) and strict behaviorists (those who think of dogs as conditioned machines). Thankfully, a middle ground has appeared in which dogs are acknowledged to have problem-solving ability, however different it might be from human intelligence.

By its very nature, getting a grip on what’s going on in a dog’s head is a difficult undertaking. A good part of that difficulty is the human tendency to think of dogs as furry people. Or as two researchers aptly phrased it, “Dogs seem to possess some special talent that makes people think about them as drinking buddies.” In the same vein, the researchers added, “What dogs do quite well … is make people think that dogs can think.”

Another factor in assessing intelligence is the difficulty of studying dogs in an unbiased environment. Most of the work on dog behavior involves evaluating the animals in their natural habitat. But a dog’s habitat involves, in one form or another, the somewhat artificial domestic setting created by people, which is made more troublesome by its ease of manipulation and our emotional bond with dogs that challenges the objectivity of researchers.

Wildlife biologists have long held to a general tenet that says animal species are as “smart” as they need to be to survive and perpetuate their kind. From this angle, it’s not only unfair to compare species intelligence, it isn’t especially useful. A set of behaviors that benefits one species and makes its members appear bright might be irrelevant to another species. And if we extend the comparisons to human intelligence, measured in human terms, the results are even less valid.

Mental Tools
These days, a good many neuroscientists and behaviorists believe animals might possess specific “mental tools” that enable them to solve problems of importance to the species. These tools derive from a genetic base and environmental learning—and in the case of dogs, training that enhances the combination of genes and development. Do humans have these mental tool kits? Sure, say the neurologists; they’re simply wider ranging and allow us to explore uniquely human domains such as self-awareness, language, morality, complex problem solving and the like.

More than a century ago, a behaviorist complained about the explosion of anecdotes concerning animal—particularly canine—intelligence without equal time being given to acts of animal stupidity. He wasn’t saying dogs were stupid, only that they often did stupid things. Recently, in his fine book, “The Truth about Dogs,” Stephen Budiansky follows a similar line of reasoning in a discussion of canine intelligence. In a chapter perfectly titled, “If They’re So Smart, How Come They Aren’t Rich?” the author points out that dogs seem to solve some problems easily while others baffle them. For example, how many times have you seen a dog stopped dead by a check cord wrapped once around a tree; figuring a way out of that simple situation is beyond its abilities.

Cause And Effect
“The common denominator,” Budiansky said, “in all such errors dogs make is a failure to grasp an underlying mechanism.” In other words, dogs don’t ponder cause and effect, though they know familiar, learned stimuli—owner putting on field boots, picking up a shotgun, jangling truck keys—and react to them in predictable ways. Budiansky suggests a dog’s world is a relatively rational place that allows them to make correct, and often amazingly subtle, associations without the vaguest notion of why one thing causes another. (Remember, a cornerstone of training is that dogs learn by association.)

Sometimes accidental events show the inability of dogs to reason cause and effect, and as a result develop what some researchers call “superstitious association.” By way of example, a friend of mine trained his Labrador retriever to sit in front of doors and exit them on command. One day a gust of wind blew a door open and banged the Lab’s nose. For the remainder of its life, regardless of whether any door in any location was open or shut, the dog would not sit in front of it—but would stand at a door in exactly the same position as it once sat. The dog’s grasp of cause and effect could go no further than, “I sat at a door and my nose hurt; therefore, it’s not safe to sit, only to stand.”

Does all of this mean dogs can’t solve problems? No, of course not. Anyone who’s spent time around hunting dogs has seen them successfully come to grips with a range of training and hunting issues. The trouble is we too often assume dogs view the world and its problems exactly as we do, which blinds us to the special ways that in all likelihood dogs have of solving problems, at least those of certain types and complexities. An­thropomorphic approaches ignore the probability that dogs possess specialized mental tools that are quite different from ours but that work for them and, in the long run, benefit us as well.

Thinking Visually
Clearly, dogs have the ability to use information they’ve accumulated in the past to solve problems they’ll confront in the future. Not long ago, behaviorists recognized that dogs seem biologically hardwired to store forms, or categories, of “mental representations” of their world they can access to help them cope with new, but sufficiently similar, problems. Many researchers believe these representations are visual patterns or pictures in the dog’s brain; some have referred to these images as slide shows that dogs call up when necessary.

This type of science is of value to trainers who build such an approach into their methods to help gun dogs learn; they create drills geared to condition a dog’s immediate performance and to provide images—successful responses and problem-solving tactics—the dog can store, then use when confronted with new issues.

When we ask the question, “Do dogs think?” we bring up a fundamental problem of terminology. The meaning of the word “think” often depends on how we use it, what it describes and the degree to which we understand it ourselves. If we use the word one way, then dogs could be said to think; used another way, they cannot. But no matter how we use it, one thing is certain: The minds of dogs do not mirror those of humans.

In my view, it’s more realistic to think of dogs as having an array of singular mental tools that are neither better nor worse than ours, just wonderfully different. That might be the most reasonable and advantageous way to describe a dog’s mind—a mind that we can infer something about, but whose world we can never truly enter.

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