Why Do Most Dognitive Scientists See Canine Behavior Through a Human Lens?
Wolves, Buffalo, and The Circle of Life
In a 2013 episode of Nature—“Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo”—wildlife filmmaker Jeff Turner used both land and aerial cameras to get some spectacular footage of the daily lives of a pack of wolves living in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the border between Alberta and British Columbia and is 5 times the size of Yellowstone.
Toward the end of the film, the pack is attempting to hunt a herd of buffalo. Their usual technique is to find the smallest or weakest member and separate it from the herd. But there don’t seem to be any calves or aging animals available.
Then, out of nowhere, the pack leader sense something in the distance, and takes off running, far, far ahead of the pack. Turner comments that the wolf has “seen something,” but when the camera cuts to a higher angle, shot from a helicopter, there doesn’t seem to be anything for him to see, just empty landscape. In fact, the pack is located on a slight inclination, making it impossible to see anything on the other side
Still the pack leader races on, full speed, toward some unknown target. My feeling was that he must have detected some kind of weakness in the bio-energetic field up ahead, probably emanating from a dying buffalo.
Sure enough, once the aerial camera (and the other wolves) catch up to him we see that the lead wolf has found two bison—a young one and an aging one—standing near a small creek. But instead of chasing or trying to klll the bison, the wolves actually ignore them, taking their time to drink from the creek, as if they had all the time in the world.
“The wolves,” Turner says, “don’t seem worried at all. It doesn’t seem like a hunt anymore. It’s strange. The wolves seem to only be focused on the older bull, like they’re waiting for something to happen.” (Yes, they’re waiting for him to die!)
Sunset is approaching and Turner tells us he has to return to camp, promising to come back in the morning. When he does, he finds the wolf pack feasting on the carcass of the old bull. The circle of life is complete.
Turner doesn’t say it but I will: The pack leader didn’t see the two buffalo off in the distance. It’s unlikely that he smelled or heard them either, not because they were too far away but because he was already immersed in the scent of the herd he was harassing, and the sounds of their hoof beats, etc.
So how did he know that a better target was located up ahead?
Wolves hunt by feel, and they feel things in terms of attraction and resistance. That’s how wolves target weaker animals. Smaller and weaker animals “radiate” less resistance.
Why Most Dognitive Scientists Tend to See Things Backwards
This might seem like a strange U-turn, but I think this incident shines a light on how and why most dognitive scientists go astray in how they design and implement studies on canine cognition. They don’t do so from the dog’s point of view, but from a human perspective instead. For instance, a 2013 study purports to show that dogs only steal food when the lights are off, suggesting that dogs are capable of understanding how humans see the world, in other words, they believe this indicates that dogs have a theory of mind.
Here is the abstract: “All current evidence of visual perspective taking in dogs can possibly be explained by dogs reacting to certain stimuli rather than understanding what others see. In the current study, we set up a situation in which contextual information and social cues are in conflict. A human always forbade the dog from taking a piece of food. The part of the room being illuminated was then varied, for example, either the area where the human was seated or the area where the food was located was lit. Results show that dogs steal significantly more food when it is dark compared to when it is light. While stealing forbidden food the dog's behaviour also depends on the type of illumination in the room. Illumination around the food, but not the human, affected the dogs' behaviour. This indicates that dogs do not take the sight of the human as a signal to avoid the food. It also cannot be explained by a low-level associative rule of avoiding illuminated food which dogs actually approach faster when they are in private. The current finding therefore raises the possibility that dogs take into account the human's visual access to the food while making their decision to steal it.”
On the face of it this seems quite logical, but examined more closely this study is not really designed to see things from the dog’s point of view. Eyesight is much more important to humans than to dogs. Yet instead of a study based on the dog’s default mode of information-gathering—the sense of smell—it’s designed around the human default mode.
Remember what wildlife cinematographer Jeff Turner said when lead wolf suddenly ran off ahead of the buffalo herd? He said that the wolf “saw something” ahead, even though it turned out that he couldn't have seen anything from his vantage point.
Another thing: in my experience, dogs don’t pay any attention to when the lights are on or off. The sound of the refrigerator door opening? Yes. The lights going off and on? No interest at all. In fact, in the hundreds of dogs I've observed in the past 25+ years I have never seen a single one so much as bat an eyelash when I either turn the lights on or off.
Also, the conclusion—that dogs understand their owners’ perspective—only works if we ignore that this requires a sense of self-and-other. Since a sense of self is dependent—among other things—on a class of neurons known as VENs, and a dog’s brain doesn’t have them (at least not in any significant number), dogs can’t see themselves as separate from their owners and, in turn, can't understand that their owners’ perspective may be different from their own.
So it’s pretty clear that something besides understanding the owner's perspective (that the owner can or can’t see the dog) was going on when the lights were turned off.
What could it be?
We Think Things Through, Dogs (and Wolves) Feel Things Out
If canines hunt more by feel than they do by vision, then we might be on our way to understanding this from the dog's perspective.
Let’s go back and look at the dying buffalo’s perspective (if we can). I don’t know if the buffalo knew his time was up, but I suspect he may have had two conflicting feelings: a desire to keep living despite his growing weakness and a desire to stop struggling against the inevitable.
So just as the wolves may have felt that the buffalo had these conflicting feelings, it’s possible that the dogs in the recent study sensed that both their owners and the researchers wanted them to steal food when the lights were off (that was the confirmation bias of the researchers). The owners also wanted their dogs to behave themselves while the scientists wanted to be as scientific and objective as possible yet they were probably hoping—either consciously or unconsciously—for some kind of pay-off to show itself.
Feeling things out is a form of telepathy, which translates as the ability to feel things at a distance. The lead wolf in the PBS film certainly seems to have had such an ability, but all mammals and birds have it to some degree or another. In humans it’s called a “gut” feeling.
For those who distrust my take on this, there’s a simple way to test it. Re-do the study in such a way that its aims are disguised completely, so that no one directly involved has even the faintest idea of what the dogs are expected, desired, or supposed to do. Once that control is in place, the results may be completely different.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”