Wednesday, February 13, 2013


“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog…” well, you know.

A great deal of highly entertaining, vastly ill-informed, largely anthropomorphic material has been written over the centuries on canine intelligence. The following entry is my modest contribution to this venerable undertaking.

Daniel Dennett, a philosopher whose work I’ve followed and admired for many years, has written extensively on the phenomenon of consciousness, and on evolution by natural selection (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, largely devoted to the latter, includes an excellent chapter on the former, enlarging on ideas earlier set forth in the audaciously-titled Consciousness Explained). He once observed (or so I would have said until a few months ago when I attempted to locate the vaguely-remembered citation) something to the effect that notwithstanding our close genetic kinship with the higher primates, it has been Canis lupus familiaris, the common dog, and not the chimp, bonobo or gorilla, that has been under intense selective pressure for the species’ last four thousand generations or so to understand human language. For at least 15,000 years, humanity has been the livelihood of the dog. Upon our toleration and goodwill the dog has relied, and these elements it has attempted to conduce after hard study. Market demographers may bring to bear more sophisticated tools to their assignments, but Rover has a good deal more fur in the game. The stakes (and the steaks, adds my own pet, anticipating this evening's table scraps) are very high.

I could be mistaken about Dennett, incidentally. Much of what I've googled as I've prepared for this essay suggests that he’s not inclined to credit Man’s Best Friend with the “intentional stance,” a term he devised to describe a form of sentience that possesses both an interior mental state and an awareness that other beings are possessed of interior mental states. Now as it happens, researchers (no doubt funded by your taxes, by the sweat of your brow, droplets of dollars that might be better funneled into the development of more lethal unmanned aircraft) have lately caught out squirrels in two different patterns of behavior as they secrete nuts against future need: if the squirrel is confident that it is unobserved by one of its fellows, it will go ahead and bury the savory treat. If it believes itself watched, however, it will go through the motions of hiding its treasure underground, but will actually leave the scene with the nut stuffed in its cheek, subsequently burying it in a location deemed more secure. This certainly looks to me like the intentional stance manifested in a brain not much larger than, well, an acorn. I’m going to guess that even a relatively stupid dog can rise to this level of abstraction.

Placed in the south forty (square yards) for the purposes of voiding his bladder or bowels, or merely patrolling the perimeter to make it inhospitable to the raccoons or possums or (shudder) families of skunks that occasionally send scouts behind the house, Ravi the family dog will signal his readiness to return to the interior by scratching politely, and lightly, on the kitchen door. If after a couple of repetitions he receives no response, he will ramp up the gesture with considerably more energy. On one occasion, when the spousette and I had retired with each of us supposing that the other had readmitted the pet, I was awakened an hour later by the violent and unprecedented clatter of dog claws on a bedroom window, suggesting to me that the creature (a) knew where we were and (b) brought to bear the intentional stance in his apparent belief that we possessed attention to be roused and that proximity was likely to be efficacious in securing that attention.

When I was a child, the prevailing notion of animals in the culture was something along the lines of Cartesian automata. They were governed by “instinct,” which alone produced flinches or howls if the creature was struck: no actual pain was experienced. Alongside this received wisdom, of course, people still spoke to their pets and lavished affection on them, but many did so while simultaneously believing that there was no one home, that they were sharing their lives with what amounted to furry appliances bereft of emotions, much less of any higher cognition. Much more recently (well, 1999) there was an article in The Atlantic (featured on the cover as “Why Does Your Dog Pretend to Like You?”) that painted the pooches as evolutionary opportunists:

If some advertiser or political consultant could figure out just what it is in human psychology that makes us willing to believe that dogs are loyal, trustworthy, selfless, loving, courageous, noble, and obedient, he could retire to his own island in the Caribbean in about a week with what he would make peddling that secret. Dogs belong to that select group of con artists at the very top of the profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it. Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all. They lie on top of the air-conditioning vent in the summer; they curl up by the fireplace in the winter; they commit outrages against our property too varied and unspeakable to name. They decide when we may go to bed at night and when we must rise in the morning, where we may go on vacation and for how long, whom we may invite over to dinner, and how we should decorate our living rooms. They steal the very bread from our plates (I'm thinking here of a collie I used to have whose specialty actually was toast). If we had roommates who behaved like this, we'd be calling a lawyer, or the police.

I approach the subject of dog sensibilities without professional credential. I’ve shared quarters with canines for about twenty-five years out of the four-plus decades since I left the parental premises to seek my fortune—an elusive target, to be sure—and have derived considerable moral improvement from the experience. I could wish, looking back, that as a young man I’d been more attentive to the needs of Takoma (1971-1985; a series of common roofs during the latter nine years of his span), a preternaturally intelligent husky/border collie/Australian shepherd mix, and if I peer into the remote reaches of mid-adolescence there was Sam, an amiable mongrel of scrambled pedigree, who was devoted to me during our twenty months’ association. My post-nuclear family was a very unstable isotope in the mid-sixties, and another in a series of covalent cataclysms separated Sam and me forever in 1968.

I acquired Takoma, AKA “Tako,” by marriage in 1976. The poor dog expired early in 1985 after an abbreviated but harrowing decline, and the marriage followed suit the following year in a somewhat more prolonged but comparably grim endgame. I still tell the story of how one afternoon about a third of a century ago Tako approached me in my study—I was at work in those days on a novel for which I then still held high hopes—and repeatedly nudged my elbow. Well, that was properly the muse's place, and I brusquely ignored the dog with mounting irritation until he went to the kitchen, retrieved a spent tin of catfood from the trash, returned to the study and dropped the can with a clatter at my feet: looked at me, looked pointedly down, looked at me again. It occurred to me at that point that the creature had not eaten all day owing to my neglect, the spousette being out of town for the weekend, of the standard feeding drill. This is of course anecdotal evidence only, but it seems to me at least to imply an intentional stance, and then some.

Much more consistent attention was paid to Napalm (1993-2011; described elsewhere in this blog), whose behavior first led me to posit the (metaphorical) existence of a canine “language module,” an abstraction level spun up upon receipt of a human signal that verbal interaction impends. We used to joke that Napalm could parse moderately complex English sentences once he was convinced that table scraps were in play. I do believe that my hypothetical language module, requiring as it does in my model a certain expenditure of energy on the part of the dog, might explain in part the episodes of canine deafness with which we’re all familiar. Dogs are method actors: “what’s my motivation?” indeed. Ravi, then about a year old, joined the household at the end of 2008, and I have observed him perhaps too closely for any pretense of objectivity. It’s impossible for me not to be sentimental about him, but I don’t believe that familiarity has utterly debauched my critical faculties. I’ll report, you deride.

Tone of voice, physical presence, eye contact and body language probably precede phonemes. Ravi will lie at one end of the dining room during a dinner party, and the conversation will be background noise merely to him. No words will register. We adopt a special tone (at least half an octave higher than the normal conversational timbre in my case) in addressing him, and this appears to be processed as a signal for attention: the language module spins up. Usually an early phrase directed at the dog is either “Ravi?” (put language module in fifth gear!) and/or “Do you want…?”

Do you want is taken, I suspect, as a single unit of meaning, signifying to the dog that what follows the magic syllables is a proposition. Poor old Takoma well understood the difference between the subsequent “…go outside” (the back yard) and “go for a walk” (out to crap in Safeway’s ivy on Claremont Avenue) and would cower in the former instance or head enthusiastically for the vestibule in the latter. The late Napalm processed the phrase in like fashion, as does Ravi.

Ravi has only to hear the word “walk” pronounced with the appropriate inflection, or to see one of his leashes held up for his inspection in order to know that an excursion impends. He understands “treat” and “Happy Hips” (the brand name of a particularly coveted doggie delight—I speak it aloud when he dawdles returning from an excursion, and he tends to pick up the pace unless there’s a particularly provocative piece of pee-mail still being processed). On walks, which we undertake leashless wherever this is practical, he responds appropriately to “heel,” “hold it” and “wait for me” (urgency of tone is a factor in each case). Lina has been working to get him to process “go left” and “go right”; I remain as yet unconvinced that she’s made much progress toward that end (I think he’s responding much more to nonverbal cues here).

Let’s return for a moment to the Cartesian automata model to which I alluded above. Those who hold that dogs do not or cannot rise to the level of the intentional stance at least have the significant differences between primate and canine brains to back them up. But primal feelings? Rage, fear, anticipation, excitement, lust, pain—yes, and sorrow, and love—don’t these reach us from deeper substrates of our layered grey matter? The appreciation of a sonata (I do not, incidentally, believe that dogs process music, for reasons I may enlarge upon anon) engages our high-level processing, but grief? Loneliness? Shame? These may be mediated and experienced through higher levels of human consciousness, but they emanate from buried structures we share with our pets and, for that matter, with the beasts we carnivorous hominids routinely consume (another topic for a future blog entry).

Ultimately I think it matters less whether dogs actually understand our words—I believe that Ravi does, and there is experimental evidence to suggest that one particularly brilliant border collie (a breed universally acknowledged to occupy the upper reaches of canine cognition) has not merely mastered a vocabulary of over a thousand words, but can also process the rudiments (verb-subject) of grammar—than whether a spectrum interspecies communication that extends to a level of abstraction, language forming one band of this spectrum, is taking place. If it is, then something remarkable has occurred over the millennia, a development that eluded the grasp of the author of “Why Does Your Dog Pretend to Like You?” fourteen years ago. We have established a kind of communion, on a fairly sophisticated level, with an intelligent representative of the animals (there are others, of course. I believe that the connection with domestic cats is conducted at a significantly lower level of abstraction. I can’t speak from experience of horses or livestock), and at least among societies that can afford a class prosperous and indulgent enough to support household pets we have a population of, well, quislings. We humans are so routinely callous in our depredations upon the other animal species of this planet that if they were magically raised to sentience, their vision of the demonic would certainly take two-legged form. We have invaded and now occupy the planet as harshly and proudly as ever Nazis lorded over France, and yet…here there trot at our heels our very own collaborators, who may not have welcomed the human hegemony at the outset, but who have bound their fates with us and even (heaven help!) love us. We have an obligation to be kind to them, don’t you think?