"Obtaining Status vs. Enforcing Dominance: Is Coren Still Wrong?"

Magical Thinking About Dogs vs Understanding Their True Magic. Originally published in slightly different form on July 26, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.


I Was Wrong In my last post I said that Stanley Coren had made a turnaround on the alpha theory. I was wrong. The only turnaround, if there was one, concerns whether to use force. He still believes in the alpha theory, as made clear by his latest post,Obtaining Status, Rather Than Enforcing Dominance Over Dogs.” Dr. Coren also denies ever advocating force: “Contrary to Mr. Kelly’s [sic] claim,” Coren writes, “I did not advocate [forcing a dog on its back] in my 2006 book, The Intelligence of Dogs.” It’s true. That advice is not found in the 2006 edition. However, here’s what Dr. Coren wrote in the original: “Push the dog over on its side, and hold it there for the better part of a minute. If the dog doesn’t elevate its legs when you do this, lift its legs into a more submissive position, or roll the dog on its back so that the legs are pointed up.” (The Intelligence of Dogs, p. 212). [1]

Continuum vs. Spectrum Now that that’s been cleared up, I think it should also be clear that Dr. Coren and I both love dogs. And we both know a lot about them. Yet we have substantial differences in how we view their consciousness. Coren sees consciousness as a continuum, based on Darwin’s supposed idea that the differences between the mental faculties found in humans and animals will prove to be “one of degree and not of kind.” [2] This has been taken out of context (not just by Dr. Coren but by many other scientists). It’s quite clear that the differences between human and animal cognition are of both degree and kind, just as rainbow is a gradual continuum from red to violet; yet within it, there are clear demarcations between each specific color. [3] Another difference is that Dr. Coren’s ideas about dogs tend to be thoughtcentric; he sees behavior as a product of higher cognitive processes. I tend to be dogcentric; I see behavior as an expression of emotional energy. For instance, many dog owners complain that their dog has “too much energy” but no one complains that that their dog “thinks too much!” Ultimately, Dr. Coren looks at dogs and says, “Wow! What amazing abilities they have!” Then concludes, “Their modes of cognition must be very much like ours.” I look at dogs and say, “Wow! What amazing abilities they have!” Then ask, “How can they possibly do all that without having some higher form of cognition?” In short, I’d say that Coren draws conclusions; I ask questions.

Do Dogs Have a Sense of Self? With that in mind, I have some questions about Dr. Coren’s latest article in which he advocates a training exercise called the Work for a Living Program. [4] 1) Dr. Coren implies that the exercise works because dogs have a “sense of self,” an awareness that they exist as beings, separate and apart from others, and that they “think” of their food and toys, etc, as part of a generalized abstract category called “resources.” 2) Dr. Coren’s explanation requires that dogs be capable of forming intangible thoughts and then comparing one intangible thought to another. 3) Dr. Coren says that dogs see us us as their “pack leaders”, and that they’re less anxious when they know “who’s in charge.” These ideas make perfect sense when looked at through a thought-centric lens, but they don’t add up when looked at from a dog’s point of view. Dr. Coren: “If you manage and dispense important resources, the dog will respond to you out of self interest.” First question: How does an animal with no “sense of self” [5] act in its own “self interest?” This may seem like a purely semantic point, but the way we use words directly influences the way we think and feel about teem. If we say a dog “bares its teeth,” for example, we’re unconsciously expressing our belief that the dog produces this behavior with deliberate intent, when it may, in fact, be more of a simple reflex designed to get the soft skin of the lips out of the way of the teeth whenever a dog has a strong urge to bite. So absent any sound scientific data showing that dogs actually do have a sense of self wouldn’t it be more prudent and parsimonious to say that a dog acts out of a desire for food, shelter, water, comfort, companionship, play, etc, [6] rather than out of a “self interest” in obtaining “resources?”


Good at Hiding It If dogs have a sense of self, they’re certainly good at hiding it. For example, how do we explain the dog who saved his wounded companion from being run over again on a freeway in Chile, by putting himself in harm’s way? How do we explain the 15-year-old pointer in Minnesota who, out for her evening walk last winter, refused to go the usual direction, pulled her owner down the street toward a house they’ve never walked past before, where a strange man, neither of them had ever met, was found lying in his driveway, dying of a heart attack? (The dog’s owner quickly dialed 911 and the man’s life was saved.) Dr. Coren himself has written about dogs who can sense when someone is close to death. Personally, I think these things could only happen if dogs don’t have the ability to see themselves as being separate and apart from others. Dr. Coren: “Instead of dominance based on physical power and threats [the Work for a Living Program] is more similar to establishing status ... The thought patterns are much the same that might run through your mind if you were introduced to your president or prime minister. You might not like his political program, but ... you don’t try to bite him.” Does status have more of a tangible or intangible quality? If the second, then how does a dog’s brain process intangibles? And how does he make mental comparisons between another being’s status and his own? And how does Dr. Coren know what kind of thought patterns are running through a dog’s mind?

Peeing on Someone’s Status Even an act of dominance, while still based on the relative value of who’s stronger, is something a dog can feel when he’s being “dominated” by a stronger being. [7] (He doesn’t feel the other’s dominance, exactly, just the physical or emotional force being applied.) But how does a dog feel someone else’s status, or compare that being’s status to his own? (The clearest way to see the difference between the two is that while a dog could very easily bite or pee on the prime minister’s leg, there is no way he could bite or pee on that person’s status.) Dr. Coren: “Surprisingly, the same acceptance of you as pack leader also helps to control anxiety and fearfulness. This is because canines look to those with higher status to decide when a situation, visitor, or occurrence is a threat or challenge.” There is no such thing as a pack leader, either in dogs or wolves, at least not in the traditional sense of the term. Yet there’s still a grain of truth here. In any social group there will be one member who has acquired more skill, more knowledge, and more ability than the others. His experience and abilities give him (or her) a palpable presence, a kind of emotional pull which draws the other members toward him or her. This is part of what makes humans treat powerful political figures with respect even if we’re opposed to their polices. It’s more a matter of feeling their charisma than thinking about their status. The real reason the Working for a Living Program helps solve some behavioral problems in some dogs [8], is that dogs are designed to “work for a living,” to apply their energy toward a group purpose. Even breeds that weren’t specifically bred for working character, still feel this deep genetic need. It’s the most important aspect of their history as group predators. [9] The biggest difference between dogs and wolves is that wolves still make a living with their teeth while dogs have learned to make a living with their hearts. They get under our skin. They charm us. They make us fall madly in love with them. They don’t do this by thinking about things in the abstract. They do it because they operate on pure love and emotion. Writer Merrill Markoe (who came up with “Stupid Pet Tricks” for David Letterman) says that if dogs could talk, they would probably say: “Throw the ball! Throw the ball! Throw the ball!” A great dog trainer I know once said, “Everything we think we know about dogs is wrong. But everything we feel about our dogs is right.” I agree wholeheartedly with how Dr. Coren feels about dogs. To me, it’s only when he thinks about them that he goes astray. As for the rest of us, my feeling is, the more we can overcome our natural human tendency to think about how “smart” dogs are, and the more we can tune in to the wonderful emotional bonds they form with us—and ask, “How are such bonds possible?”—the closer we’ll be to understanding how magical dogs really are. LCK “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Join Me on Facebook! Follow Me on Twitter! Link Up With Me on Linkedin! Footnotes: 1) Here’s a fuller excerpt from the original text of The Intelligence of Dogs. “You should deliberately manipulate and restrain your dog on a regular basis, placing it in a position that, for wild canids, signifies submission to the authority of a dominant member of the pack.” Dr. Coren then says you should do this in the following manner. “Speaking gently to the dog, hold its muzzle closed for a few seconds. Then push the dog over on its side, and hold it there for the better part of a minute. If the dog doesn’t elevate its legs when you do this, lift its legs into a more submissive position, or roll the dog on its back so that the legs are pointed up. Look directly at the dog’s eyes as you do this.” (page 212). This is a kinder, gentler version of the alpha roll, advocated by Cesar Millan and popularized years ago by The Monks of New Skete. The monks removed the alpha roll from later editions of their training manual because it was dangerous. Perhaps Dr. Coren and his publishers removed his kinder, gentler version of this exercise for similar reasons? 2) Dr. Coren: “Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, that the only difference between the intelligence of humans and that of most of their lower mammalian cousins ‘is one of degree and not of kind.’” (The Intelligence of Dogs, Chapter Three, p. 43.) Here are Darwin’s actual words, in full: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.” Note that Coren mistakenly tells us that the difference Darwin talked about was between the intelligence of humans and lower animals not the difference in mind between humans and higher animals. (Intelligence is just one quality of the human mind.) In the previous section of the passage cited, Darwin was discussing how apes seemed to show some of the same emotions and familial feelings for their relatives that humans do for theirs. So Darwin wasn’t talking about dogs or otters or giraffes, he was talking specifically about apeshigher animalsonly. This shows that Coren’s position is based on an incorrect version of Darwin’s ideas. Also, a few sentences later, in that same paragraph, Darwin went on to clarify things further: “If it be maintained that certain powers such as self-consciousness, abstraction, etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly-advanced faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly-developed language.” Since no “non-human” animal has yet shown any ability to communicate through a highly-developed form of language, this invalidates Darwin’s first statement, as Darwin himself said it might. Darwin also wrote in very specific terms of how the faculties of man and animals differ, that man differs “from the lower animals in the power of expressing his desires by words...” (The Descent of Man, p. 786.) Yet Dr. Coren ignores Darwin here by saying, “When a child responds correctly to the request ‘Give me your hand,’ we grant it some linguistic ability; obviously then, a dog’s appropriate response to ‘Give me a paw,’ represents equivalent language ability.” (The Intelligence of Dogs, p. 22.) No, it doesn’t represent an equivalent ability. Not at all. In Darwin’s example, it’s the human who differs from lower animals by his ability to express himself through words. In Coren’s example it’s just the opposite; the dog supposedly has linguistic abilities on a similar level to humans even though he’s only capable of responding to a learned verbal cue and is totally and completely incapable “of expressing his desires by words.” 3) Just as different colors have different vibrational frequencies, certain types of cognition can be described in much the same way. One example is the different types of brain waves—alpha waves, beta waves, theta waves—that operate on different frequencies, and help create different forms of consciousness. Alpha waves induce a quiet, meditative state. Beta waves enable sensory feedback mechanisms to take place, etc, etc. 4) It’s essentially a less comprehensive version of the NILIF (or Nothing In Life Is Free) program, which is based on William E. Campbell’s No Free Lunch. 5) In human beings the sense of self is thought to be registered in the dorsal medial frontal cortex, a portion of the human brain, which isn’t as developed in apes, let alone dogs. There are many ways of describing the sense of self, and what it entails, including a sense of agency (the ability to control one’s bodily movements), which dogs clearly have, and which would more rightly belong to Darwin’s concept of an incipient form of (or evolutionary pre-cursor to) the higher cognitive ability that humans have to see our minds and bodies as being distinctly separate and apart from the minds and bodies of other beings. 6) I would also argue that, absent a dog’s ability to lump things like food, water, etc, into abstract categories—such as “resources” or even “survival needs”—it would be more correct to remove such words from Dr. Coren’s explanation. This is another seemingly minor point, but again, I believe it’s one that speaks directly to how Coren, and other scientists, fall into error when attempting to understand or describe how dogs “think.” So the reason Dr. Coren’s program works is not because dogs act in their own “self interest,” but because they’re capable of overriding their individual needs for the needs of their group as a whole, a trait inherited from the prey drive of the wolf. (Dogs seem to have expanded on the wolf’s more narrowly-defined perception of the “group” to include any and all human beings, especially those who are in danger.) 7) While force is perceptible, and therefore, easily grasped by the canine mind, to me the idea that a dog or person is more dominant than another (which requires comparing one’s general abilities over time to another’s) is still too abstract for dogs to grasp. 8) I also stand by the advice I gave to one of Dr. Coren’s readers in the comments section of his previous article. It too involves hand feeding, but it’s done in a way where the dog has to push into your other hand while he eats. The reasons it’s effective, and how it can be applied to almost any behavioral problem from aggression to housebreaking, can be found here. 9) Wolves who settle near garbage dumps don’t form packs. Coyotes occasionally form packs, but only when they need to hunt large prey. Hence, as evolutionary biologist Ray Coppinger has said, “Pack formation is dependent on prey size.”



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