Friday, June 26, 2009

How Man Creates Dog in His Own Image

This is a compilation of 3 articles I recently wrote for Psychology Today.

How Man Creates Dog in His Own Image

Dogs Have Colonized Our Subconscious

Kevin Behan writes, “Whether we know it or not, we all develop highly complex theories for [canine behavior]. Even someone who doesn’t own a dog and never even thinks about why [dogs] do what they do nonetheless develops a highly elaborate theory.”

I think this is due in part to our Disneyfication of animals, which causes us to unconsciously confer "personhood" on our 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, our religions, our ethnic backgrounds, etc. 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!" or “I’m more into birds!”

And just as we need to assign identities to ourselves, we also need to assign them to our dogs. (I don't now about birds and horses, but 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 reason or 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 kind of natural high.

When we see footage of wolves hunting, for example, our analysis of what we think is going in their minds (which probably goes back to the 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 do that is that a spider's "face" is expressionless.

Another "reason" we believe dogs use logic and reason may be that dogs don't feel themselves to be separate from us, and on a certain 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 much smarter than wolves in terms of being adaptable to new environments and in terms of their social and emotional 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. 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, Andy Clark, Susan Hurley, 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 Dog as Psychotherapist

None of us are complete human beings. We all have unresolved issues. Most people are aware of the health and psychological benefits dog ownership can have. There’s plenty of research showing that owning a dog reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, etc.

There's another benefit that not many people are aware of; dogs can also be great psychotherapists if we let them.

Years ago I saw a woman in Central Park call her dog to her in a stern tone of voice. The dog had been doing something he shouldn't have; I don't remember what it was. He came to her nervously, head down.

She grabbed his snout and shouted in his face. "Do you have any idea how irresponsible you are when you do that?" she yelled at him. "Do you? What would make you even think that that kind of behavior was acceptable?"

The dog looked "guilty," which satisfied the owner momentarily.

"All right, then. But you'd better never let me catch you doing that kind of thing again."

What I took away from this encounter (other than that the owner was completely unaware that she was talking to a dog, not an unruly child) was that some of us seem to use our relationships with our dogs to work out emotional issues of our own, which we then project back on to the dog's behavior in a circular fashion.

How could a dog act "irresponsibly?" How could he have "thought" his behavior was acceptable or unacceptable?

His owner seemed certain that he felt guilty when she chided him.

But did he?

A recent study done by Alexandra Horowitz at Barnard College shows some pretty solid evidence that the "guilty look" we sometimes see in our dogs is a complete and utter figment of our own imaginations, and is actually the result of the way the dogs have been treated, not an awareness of any misdeed on their part. (Some of the dogs in the study exhibited a "guilty look" — or so their owner's imagined — even when they hadn't done anything “wrong.”)

So clearly dogs don't feel guilty, but people often imagine that they do.

Does this have anything to do with the callow supposition I made years ago, that some dog owners use their dogs as surrogates for their own emotional issues?

Yes. I still think that's true. In my first mystery novel, A Nose for Murder, Jack Field — an ex-cop turned dog trainer — describes the kind of relationship one of his training clients had with her Airedale, Ginger:

"She was using Ginger to work out emotional issues she had with her parents. It's not uncommon. The owner engages in a kind of psychodrama, with the dog playing the role of the owner's inner child and the owner in the role of a parent or authority figure."

Jack also thinks it's possible to determine a person's complete psychological profile by how they interact with their dogs:

"If Sigmund Freud had allowed his patients to talk only about their pooches, instead of free-associating about their mommies and their potty training, they would have all been cured a lot faster."

These are jokes, of course. And yet Freud said jokes are a way of telling the truth.

Our dogs love us to pieces. They also read us and our emotional lives in ways we can only imagine. I'm convinced that they know, on a purely unconscious level, what our issues are. They feel them. And it seems to me that if we can learn how to pay attention to what our dog's behaviors reflect back to us about how we feel, if we can tune in to how their actions might trigger whatever unresolved childhood issues we may have, particularly at times when we get frustrated and angry at them over minor issues, I think we could save a lot of money on therapy. Or we could just talk to our therapists about our dogs. Either way, there's something about the nature of the domesticated dog that can get to the heart of the matter like no other animal on earth.

By the way, about 4 years after I wrote the passages in my first novel I've quoted above, I found out that Kevin Behan, who originated the training methods I use and the philosophy I subscribe to, felt the same way. Here's a link to an article that's been on his website since at least 2001.

The Dog Who Helped Me Forgive My Father

Let me start by saying two things concerning my personal understanding about the nature of emotion.

The first is about memory, which is that there is virtually no difference between physical and emotional memory.

This is something I learned while studying at the NATAS acting workshop in New York. (I was never a very good actor, by the way; I was always too self-conscious on camera.)

Most people think that when a method actor is preparing for a scene, he starts by thinking about an emotional event from his past, and then tries to recapture that same feeling. That's sort of true. But trying to simply recall the emotions doesn't work. Being caught up in a deep emotional state — the only kind actors find worth using — puts you in a vulnerable position, and there's a part of the psyche that tries to prevent us from being vulnerable if it can. So you can struggle and strain all you like to recall the giddy, almost tipsy delight you felt the first time a girl (or boy) you liked told you they liked you back, for example, or the despair you felt later when she (or he) told you things were over. But try as you might to recall the exact emotions, they won't come. Yet if you simply recall some of the sensory details surrounding those events — the color of her eyes, the texture of the walls, something as inconsequential as the angle of light shining off her hair — then the emotions come flooding back, to carry you away once more.

Emotional memory is not mental or abstract; it's visceral and concrete.

The second thing about emotions is that while we may categorize many different types — anger, jealousy, longing, lust, joy, etc. — they all come from the same well, meaning there is essentially only one emotion. And like white light it can be refracted into a rainbow of different emotional colors, something I also learned in acting workshop. For example, if a scene requires your character to be angry, but you're feeling more on the sad side that day, it makes no difference at all. If any kind of emotion is there you're free to use it however you want. Yes, you may feel sad before the scene starts, but once you're in it you'll be absolutely furious.

So the only difference between emotions is their "color."

Years ago I had a black-and-white English field setter named Charley. He was named after a character in a screenplay I'd just sold: The Legend of Charley Maine, about a Manhattan couple — Maggie and Charley Maine — whose youngest daughter is kidnapped by elves on Halloween night. Charley often appeared on David Letterman's NBC show, where he was known as "Charlie [sic] the Bubble-Eating Dog." And when I wasn't waiting for phone calls from NBC, or out on my own auditions, I loved spending long hours in Central Park watching Charley play with the other dogs. A favorite of ours was a young Weimeraner named Flash, a wonderfully exuberant dog.

Flash's owner and I would sometimes make small talk as our dogs played, and in the course of our casual conversations, which took place over several months, outdoors, in a relaxed setting, little tidbits emerged about a kind of love/hate relationship she had with her father. And I slowly began to understand (or I thought I did) something about the curious relationship she had with her dog; she was often red-faced with anger at Flash for doing next to nothing, yet at other times she smothered him with kisses, also for doing nothing. She had a love/hate relationship with her dog too.

So one day I asked her why she'd named him "Flash," and she told me that it had been one of her father's nicknames. Well, of course. It all made perfect sense.

As I thought about it, though, I realized that something similar had been going on with me and Charley as well. I never berated him for playing, but I did get very seriously mad at him whenever he did something I thought might put his life in danger. At such times I felt helpless and out of control, and could feel myself actually becoming my father.

What was going on?

When Charley died suddenly six months later, some answers came.

First of all, my father had passed away 22 years earlier, but I didn't cry at his funeral; I was the only dry-eyed Kelley in the church that day. And I had never cried over his death at any time after that either. And the reason, or so I told myself, was that I was still pissed off at the way he'd treated me when I was very, very young. (Let's just say he'd been overfond of corporal punishment.) But when my poor little dog Charley died, man did I cry. I sobbed for 3 days straight. I couldn't even get out of bed. And it seemed to me that there was no difference in the tears I cried for Charley in 1990 and the ones I should have cried for my father 22 years earlier. In fact the love and loss I felt for that dog, reawakened something in me about the deep nature of the love I'd actually felt for my dad following the mistakes he'd made when I was 3 or 4. Tears are tears, after all, whether we cry them for our lost parents, or while watching the end of a good production of Romeo and Juliet or seeing My Dog Skip on TV, or just because we hear some dumb song on the radio. So I ended up crying for the loss of both animals, human and canine, daddy and doggy. (I also learned that you may be able to ignore your feelings successfully for 22 years but that doesn't mean they've gone away.)

Then, as my grief began to ebb and fade, I realized I'd also somehow forgiven my dad. The burden of anger and resentment I'd carried around in my chest like a dead weight for most of my life was gone, vanished. I finally understood what a great man he was in so many ways. He fought a war, he was part of a unit of soldiers who freed the prisoners at Dachau. He could sit down at the piano and play virtually any song he'd heard for the first time, completely by ear. He was also the most popular dad in our neighborhood because he was the only grownup who'd play with the neighbor kids. Many times when the doorbell rang, and a kid stood on the other side of the screen door with a football or basketball under his arm, he wouldn't ask, "Can Lee [or Jamie or Del] come out and play?" but "Can Jack [my dad's name] come out and play?" And yes, my father made some mistakes when I was a tyke, but bless him, once he realized what he was doing he learned how to control his temper and it never happened again. I should have recognized what a difficult thing that must've been instead of staying angry at him for so long.

So thanks, Charley. You were a great dog. I miss you.

And thanks Jack. You were a great dad. I miss you too.

Happy Father's Day, 2009.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

1 comment:

Kasha said...

Great fascinating post! Something to think about. I am sorry about your dad. I know he was a great man, especially since he shares the same good name with my son. My husband and I like to speak for Africa like she has thoughts like us. It is hilarious, but obviously very inaccurate.