"How Man Creates Dog In His Own Image, Part I."
Dogs Have Colonized Our Subconscious.
Originally published on June 5, 2009 at PsychologyToday.com.
Everyone has their own theory of why dogs behave the way they do. People who don’t even have dogs at least have a theory. This is due in part to our Disneyfication of animals, which causes us to unconsciously confer “personhood” on dogs. But it’s also the result of something very clever that the domesticated dog, and no other species, does. They read us and react, read us and react, read us and react, over and over. The other part is something exclusive to humans: we form identities that include not only our occupations, religions, and ethnic backgrounds; we identify with our pets as well. “I’m a dog person,” someone might say. “Not me,” says another, “I’m more of a cat person.” “I like horses!” And just as we need to assign identities to ourselves, we also need to assign them to our dogs. (Cats already have their own identities.) I met a woman on the street a few weeks ago while I was out with a Welsh springer spaniel named Caleb who is probably the most ebulliently social dog I’ve ever met. The woman had a King Charles cavalier spaniel. And as Caleb went through his bag of tricks the other dog scooted away in a wide circle, making an almost perfect arc with Caleb at the center of her radius. The woman said, “She’s just playing hard to get.” How interesting, I thought. The “dog-as-stuck-up-cheerleader” theory. Caleb had to pee so he gave up on his attempts to conquer the little dog with love, and started sniffing for a good spot. But once his back was turned, the female immediately came zooming toward his backside for a quick butt sniff. When Caleb realized what was going on he turned around, and the other dog quickly rolled over on her side. “See?” said the woman, proudly. “Now she’s being a total slut.” Hmm. First she’s hard to get, now she’s too easy. There are any number of explanations for how this exchange actually happened (and why). I suppose her explanation for the behavior is valid but I doubt it. The most common explanation would be that the female was first exhibiting an avoidance reaction, then she became submissive. I don’t see it that way. Avoidance makes sense until you realize that the female really wanted to make contact with Caleb, she just didn’t know how. This is borne out by the way she came zooming in once his back was turned. And submission makes no sense at all unless you were to first change the size, shape, and structure of a dog’s brain. The human mind is designed to find reasons for things, even things that don’t have reasons. And dogs don’t have reasons for their behaviors; they can’t. The dog’s brain is designed primarily to process sensory data and emotional information in real time. It would not have been advantageous, in evolutionary terms, for dogs or wolves to take time out to “think” about their circumstances and then use logic to make decisions. In the wild a logical animal is a dead animal. That’s because logic is a slow, high-energy, top-heavy mental process. Even chess masters don’t use logic to win matches; they rely on pattern recognition and working memory. Yet whenever we see a dog stop for a moment to make choices about which action he wants to take, or pause to “feel things out,” we automatically (and mostly unconsciously) believe the dog is “thinking things through,” i.e., using an innate ability to reason. There are several “reasons” for this. One is that dogs have faces. And one of the primary social circuits in the human brain is designed to recognize not only the faces of people we know but to “intuit” what the expressions on those faces “mean.” These circuits are equipped with a lot of dopamine receptors, making face recognition a natural high. When we see footage of wolves hunting together, for example, our analysis of what we think is going in their minds (which probably goes back to the neo-Darwinian idea of species having adaptive “strategies”) is that the wolves are planning their attack; they’ve got a “game plan.” We see it in their faces. Yet when we see a spider go into a hole and pull a leaf over himself to “hide” from his prey, do we believe the spider is thinking this through logically? Does it have a game plan? Of course not. And one of the reasons we don’t is that a spider’s “face” is expressionless. Another “reason” we believe dogs use logic may be that dogs don’t feel themselves to be separate from us, and on a very real level we don’t feel separate from them. Many pet owners report that they grieve more over the loss of a favorite pet than they do over the loss of a parent, a close friend, or a spouse. These owners say that losing the pet is like losing a part of themselves. That may be because parents, spouses, and friends have ego boundaries. Dogs don’t. As a result it becomes easier for us to see our dogs as indivisible from our own thoughts, making us susceptible to the belief that they think more like we do than the size and shapes of their brains would suggest or support. Another anomaly is that dogs are reportedly much smarter than wolves in terms of being adaptable to new environments and in terms of their social intelligence. And yet a wolf’s brain is at least 25% larger than the brain of a dog the same size. Where does the dog get its extra brain power? I think they get it from our brains. Seriously. I think they literally hijack parts of our brains and use them to think with. I borrowed this idea from the philosophy of embodied embedded cognition, written and hypothesized about by Daniel Dennett, Susan Hurley, Humberto Maturana and others. Here’s how I think this happens: Dogs read us and react, read us and react, read us and react, over and over. And we project our own emotions and thought processes onto their reactions, based in large part on our personal beliefs and identities. As a result, our reactions, in the moment, reinforce whatever small behavioral changes the dog exhibits in response to us in an almost continuous loop. This happens repeatedly, countless numbers of times every day, even when we’re not thinking about it. And as a result, the dog begins to reflect back to us many of the same things we’re unconsciously projecting onto them. That’s what they do. That’s what we do. So it makes sense that the woman with the female cavalier thought her dog was playing hard to get. It wasn’t that being hard to get was part of the woman’s persona. In fact, probably just the opposite. But dogs feed off our emotions. So by having an emotional issue with that specific behavior, the woman was unconsciously reinforcing it. If she hadn’t had an emotional issue with it, and hadn’t labeled it, she would have had more of an idea about what was really going on with her dog (she was anxious), and would have done something to help her. The more of our unfinished selves we see in our dogs, the more they reflect those things back to us. Over and over and over and over.
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