"Do Dogs Have a Theory of Mind? Yes, But Whose Mind Is It?"

Dogs Can’t Think? Then How Do They Know What We’re Thinking?

Originally published in slightly different form on July 30, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com

Dogs vs. Chimps

Dogs are amazing animals. They have an ability to read us like no other species can. Sometimes they know more about us than we know about ourselves. They also score higher on certain so-called “mind-reading” tests than chimpanzees, where the goal is to see which animal can more reliably follow a visual cue given by a human being points at or even looks at an object. Dogs can learn to do this quite easily, chimps can’t. “Dogs are more skillful than great apes at a number of tasks in which they must read human communicative signals indicating the location of hidden food. In this study, we found that wolves who were raised by humans do not show these same skills, whereas domestic dog puppies only a few weeks old, even those that have had little human contact, do show these skills. These findings suggest that during the process of domestication, dogs have been selected for a set of social-cognitive abilities that enable them to communicate with humans in unique ways.” (“The Domestication of Social Cognition in Dogs,” Brian Hare et al, November 22, 2002.) To some people this suggests that dogs have a 1st level Theory of Mind. What does that mean? If you and I were standing or sitting across from each other and I pointed at something behind you, you would either look to see what was back there or ask, “What is it?” That’s because we both know you don’t have “eyes in the back of your head.” The conclusion that some dognitive scientists have come to recently is that Muttsy has pretty much the same capacity, while our closest cousins, chimpanzees, don’t.

Dogs Are Smarter Than Chimps? If you think about it, the belief that dogs are smarter than chimps challenges two of the most basic assumptions of modern mainstream science. 1) Consciousness is a by-product of certain bio-energetic processes—most notably the firing of neurons—taking place inside a self-contained organ called the brain. And 2) Evolution tends to follows a specific course where, as organisms evolve into higher forms, they tend to become more and more developed, and their levels of development can be clearly seen in their anatomical features, including specific structures found in their brains. (This is not always the case, but it generally holds true.) On the evolutionary scale, we would place the canine, chimp, and human brain in that order—canine > chimp > human—in terms of relative size, the number of neurons they contain, and the various bells and whistles (neurological substructures) they each possess. So, logically speaking, in order for dogs to be “smarter” than chimps, we’d either have to ignore evolution, or we’d have to redefine consciousness as something not entirely dependent on the number of neurons firing inside the brain. Another problem is that these studies always seem to involve getting the dog to find a hidden toy or treat, meaning he’s asked to take part in a game involving the search aspect of his prey drive. And since dogs are group predators at heart, this means that if the dog’s mind is already primed to follow whatever cues might help with the “search for prey,” it increases the likelihood that a dog will do what we want him to. Meanwhile, if you were to simply point behind your dog, without first establishing a similar context of searching for a treat or a toy, and particularly if there was nothing actually there, the chances are pretty good that your dog wouldn’t look behind him. I’ve tested this with a few dozen My Field dogs, where either I or their owners point behind the dog and say, “[Dog’s Name], look!” And so far none of the dogs have been able to follow where we were pointing; they usually give us a blank stare, or look for something on the ground directly in front of them. My little field “study,” as unscientific as it may be, involves a much a larger number of test subjects. Plus, the percentage of dogs that don’t exhibit a ToM (100% so far) is much larger than the percentage that do when the tests are skewed by establishing the behavior in the context of a hunting game. This suggests that something besides a ToM is at play.

Group Consciousness This brings up another problem: the phenomenon of group consciousness, which is found in all social animals, but is seen most clearly and readily in how dogs form a kind of shared consciousness, both with other dogs and with their owners. If we see the human/dog dynamic as a self-organizing system, it would make sense that, on a certain level, dogs would automatically be better at reading our signals (particularly if it involves their prey drive) than chimps would, because both dogs and humans have an evolutionary history that involves hunting large prey animals by working in concert. (That hunting-partner relationship still continues, in a way, when we play with our dogs.) One of the hallmarks of self-organizing systems is that the system is always smarter than the sum of its parts. So the fact that a dog’s brain has less carrying capacity than ours—fewer neurons, fewer bells and whistles—works to his advantage. Once a dog has established a working relationship with us, he automatically becomes “smarter,” not because he can think for himself, or has a ToM, but because that’s how such systems operate. We bring our intellect and emotions to the relationship, dogs bring their instincts and emotions. Emotion is the common ground. One of my clients told me recently how she and her husband and their boxer, Fancy, came home from a walk one day, and got off the elevator in their building. They expected Fancy to go racing down the hall to their apartment. Instead she stayed right in front of the elevator, refusing to budge, no matter what they said or did. They initially chalked this up to some kind of weird, “boxer disobedience.” It was only after the husband put his key in the lock, found it wouldn’t turn, then looked up at the number on the door that he realized they’d gotten off on the wrong floor. Fancy wasn’t disobeying after all! Her owners weren’t paying attention to their surroundings, but she was! Here’s my take on how and why this happened. Initially, Fancy and her owners were in a group mind-set; they all had the same desire: to go home. To Fancy, when her owners got off on the wrong floor, and urged her to come with them anyway, they weren’t acting in accordance with that desire, which is why she balked. She wasn’t being disobedient; in fact she was quite faithfully obeying the group’s shared desire to go home, despite the fact that her owners unwittingly kept urging her to do otherwise.

Dogs Feel Things, Humans Feel and Think Dogs are designed to be able to tune in to the way we feel, while our mental thought processes would be similar to the static found between AM radio stations. And by tuning in to our feelings, they create an emotional channel between our minds and theirs. This enables them to influence the way we feel about them, which automatically changes the way we think as well. So when people tell me they can sometimes see a “thinking process” going on in their dogs’ eyes, I would say that the dog’s mind probably isn’t adding and subtracting all the possible variables about what to do or how to act in a specific situation, she’s probably behaving more like a radio dial, tuning in to the proper frequency that would put her and her owner on the same wavelength. This wouldn’t require us to rewrite the laws of evolution or neuroscience. We’d just have to see dogs from a slightly different point of view ... theirs. LCK

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