The “Dogs Are Like Just Like Us” Fallacy.
Boosters and Scoffers
There are three very different, and very important aspects to the canine mind: the brain, emotions, and instincts.
It seems to me that most trainers and dognitive scientists are more interested in a dog’s brain and instincts than they are in the dog’s heart. But the heart is the true center of canine behavior, the only thing that can account for the tremendous number of behaviors and interactions dogs have with humans and other dogs, behaviors and abilities that are currently being touted as mental, rather than emotional in nature.
This is an unfortunate situation brought on by the fact that there are two kinds of dognitive scientists: boosters and scoffers. In the book Rational Animals (2006, Matthew Nudds & Susan Hurley, eds.), comparative psychologists Michael Tomasello and Josep Call distinguish between what they call boosters and scoffers.
“Boosters interpret behavior in psychologically rich ways; scoffers prefer psychologically lean interpretations. The ultimate boosters think there are no significant differences between human and nonhuman cognition.”
I would describe these as two types of scientists as believers and skeptics. And I’ve found that whenever researchers start comparing the cognitive abilities of animals to human beings they’re probably “believers,” meaning they operate under the “differences-of-degree-not-kind” fallacy, based on a selective interpretation of Darwin.
Do Dogs Really Understand Language?
An August 31st, 2016 story in National Geographic makes a common mistake. In the piece titled “One More Reason Dogs Are More Like Us Than We Thought” Dr. Maya Wei-Haas (who has a Ph. D. in environmental chemistry, and writes about science for National Geographic) writes: “Man's best friend can understand both the words we say and the tone in which we say them.”
Any linguist worth their salt would laugh uproariously at this idea. Yes, dogs respond quite well to our verbal cues. But they learn them via a process called pattern recognition, an evolutionary pre-cursor to words and language. So if you give the dog a verbal cue, and you link that cue to a behavior, over time the dog will learn to recognize the pattern, whether it’s “sit,” “come,” “stay,” or pretty much any other behavior. In fact, you can also teach a dog to do most of these things without ever uttering a single word. And if you’re not using words and language to cue your dog’s behaviors then where does the dog’s so-called linguistic ability come in?
The truth is, when a dog hears “Dinner time,” and comes running into the kitchen, does he do so because he understands your words? Not necessarily. You could give him any number of nonsense words, said in the same tone of voice, and the dog would still come running. In fact, the dog may come running when he simply hears you operating a can opener or opening a bag of dog food. It’s not the words, necessarily. It’s the dog’s ability to predict patterns of behavior.
In relation to the human brain (which could be compared to a loaf of challah bread) which contains about 100 billion neurons, a dog’s brain (which could be compared to a flat piece of pita bread) containing less than 4 million neurons. Plus, two thirds of a dog’s brain is dedicated to processing olfactory information. So where do all these supposed linguistic abilities come from?
They come from pattern recognition and the way dogs pay attention to our behavioral patterns. Whether it’s to get a reward or to feel an emotional connection to their owners, except when they’re sleeping dogs are almost always paying attention to what we’re doing in the hope that it might involve a group activity dogs like, things like playing fetch getting treats, and going for walks.
There is no mental connection between the dog and his owner. And, generally speaking, there’s rarely an instinctive connection. What there is, is an emotional connection.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”