Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Canine Mind Doth Make Fools of Us All

The following is taken directly from my PsychologyToday blog...

The Canine Mind Doth Make Fools of Us All
In an earlier post - "From Pavlov to Pauli..." - I wrote that, scientifically speaking, all canine behavior can and should be explained from an emotional/energetic point of view rather than a mental framework. I even kind of bragged, perhaps foolishly, that I could do just that.

In my most recent article - "Smart Pooches or Dumb Science?" - I critiqued a recent spate of online articles and TV news blurbs in which psychologist Stanley Coren quite wrongly states that dogs are better at math than 2-year-olds.

Here's CNN's version of one "study" supposedly proving that dogs can count and perhaps even do arithmetic: "Counting ability is tested in drills such as one in which treats are dropped, one at a time, behind a screen. When the researcher either sneaks away one of the treats or stealthily adds an extra before raising the screen, the dog will wait longer - appearing to puzzle over the bad math - before eating the treats."

In rebuttal I gave some of the scientific evidence for the idea that all animals, not just dogs, have an innate number sense, which enables them to know when the general amount of salient features of their environment has changed: robins and their eggs, for example, or dogs and their treats or toys. (This "number sense "can also be found in 4-and-a-half-month-old babies, by the way.)

However, I think the concept of animals or even babies having a "number sense" is inaccurate because understanding numbers - 1, 2, 3, 10, 3/5ths, pi - is language dependent. Without the use of words, animals and babies can't put names to abstract numeric concepts, or even to concrete objects like eggs or toys. It seems to me that the thing they're actually aware of is the changes that take place in their environment: the absence or presence of things that were or weren't there before. And they calibrate these changes viscerally, via the changes in own their internal energy states.

Since in my "Pavlov to Pauli" article I proposed the idea that I could explain any and all behavioral phenomenon in dogs from just such an energetic standpoint, I'll attempt to do so here.

Imagine you're at a party. Your mind is full of thoughts: "God, those cheese thingies were good, I wonder if they have any more," or, "Hey, Shelia looks good in that," or, "I hope the kids aren't terrorizing the babysitter," and possibly, "Uh-oh, there's that awful bore, what's-his-name? I hope he doesn't try to harangue me again with his theories about how dogs have better math skills than toddlers."

These are all thoughts. But beneath these thoughts your body is busy accommodating its inner "radar" to the underlying press of stimuli around you: the buzz of conversation, the brief bursts of laughter, the tempo and level of the music, the clinking of ice in glasses, and the almost constant sense of kinetic energy, people shifting between groups of 2 or 3, etc. You're not thinking much if anything about all this, but your body's internal radar is. It's constantly calibrating and recalibrating itself to accommodate these fluctuations in energy. (Since a stimulus is, by definition, anything that increases the energy in an organism, that's exactly what your body is responding to: fluctuations in energy.)

At some point you ask the hostess if you can use her bathroom. She nods, points the way, you go down the hall, make a left, go inside the bathroom, start the water running in the sink, etc. And, while you're thus engaged, a large chunk of people decide to go to another venue: perhaps out back to see the pool, perhaps they all have theater tickets. It doesn't matter. Approximately half the people, let's say, are suddenly gone, disappeared.

When you come out of the bathroom you go into a mild state of shock. Your first thought is, "Wow, where did everybody go?" though you don't really care where they went, you just want to know how they all disappeared so quickly. And the reason you're shocked is that your unconscious mind has to re-calibrate itself viscerally to this sudden change in the environment, this huge shift in energy. (This is not a mental process, by the way; the mind rarely concerns itself with fluctuations in energy, but the body is always doing so.)

Okay, now back to dogs.

Remember, the researchers showed the dogs in their study a certain number of treats then dropped the treats behind a screen, added or subtracted some, then revealed the new "amount" to the dogs.

Coren interprets all this as follows: "Now we're giving [the dog] the wrong equation which is 1+1 = 1, or 1+1 = 3. Sure enough, studies show the dogs get it. The dog acts surprised and stares at it for a longer period of time, just like a human kid would."

The dogs "get it?" Right. Except that from the dog's point of view this is more like three-card monte or a magic trick done by an annoying relative - pulling a quarter from a kid's ear or doing the "where'd my thumb go?" trick - than actual arithmetic.

Now put yourself in the dog's shoes. You're in place where there's food and people, sort of like a party. Humans are showing you some treats, so you pay attention. Those treats are magnetic to you. They're buzzing with all kinds of potential energy. As far as your body is concerned, they're the most salient feature of your environment. Then these humans do a magic trick where one of the treats is suddenly no longer there or another one is suddenly, inexplicably present. And like the partygoer coming out of the bathroom, you go into a mild state of shock: you have a look of "surprise" on your "face." But it's not because you've done any mental arithmetic. It's because your body's awareness of its surroundings is forced to make a sudden adjustment. In short, you've been fooled.

Stanley Coren has had a long and distinguished academic career. His research on sensory perception is top notch. His paper "Sensation and Perception" is required reading on the subject at university levels. He's a bestselling author, and has also written some very interesting articles on dogs here. So I have to wonder why he sometimes seems totally incapable of using any kind of real critical judgment when it comes to the subject of canine cognition. He can't really believe this stuff, can he? If he does, I guess it's true that when it comes to dogs, even the smartest people can be very easily fooled. I think that says less about Coren, though, than it does about what truly amazing animals dogs are.

They can fool even the best of us without even trying.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Monday, August 10, 2009

Smart Dogs or Dumb Science? You Do the Math...

I'm sad to have to report that AOL, MSNBC, and CNN have all proclaimed in their headlines this weekend: "Dogs Smarter than Toddlers, New Study Shows" (AOL), and "Your family dog may be smarter than your toddler!" (CNN). I'm sad because it's been my experience, as a dog trainer, that the more that "science" tries to prove how "smart" dogs are, the more dogs suffer as a consequence. (See my article at, "How Dogs Think: The Debate Between Emotion and Logic.")

Smart Dogs or Dumb Science? You Do the Math...
Here's the opening line from AOL: "The canine IQ test results are in: Even the average dog has the mental abilities of a 2-year-old child."

Really? According to what scale? Stanford-Binet? Or Bichon-Frise?

"The finding," AOL goes on to say, "is based on a language development test, revealing average dogs can learn 165 words (similar to a 2-year-old child), including signals and gestures, and dogs in the top 20 percent in intelligence can learn 250 words."

Oh, I see.

First of all, that's not only not true, it's not even news. That information (or disinformation) can be found in Stanley Coren's first book on dogs published 15 years ago. Coren (both in that book and in the recent online articles) somehow equates a dog's ability to respond, behaviorally, to cues of any kind - including words, hand gestures, whistles, even just picking up its leash - with the ability to both understand the meanings of words and to actually use them in speech. And many two-year olds are not only able to speak, they're also capable of using words in new and unexpected ways. Plus, on a basic level they inherently understand that words are symbols; they represent things. Now, I love dogs, but they don't have anything close to this kind of linguistic aptitude. So comparing simple behavioral responses to verbal or visual cues with actual linguistic ability is not just like comparing apples and oranges, it's like comparing apples and a recipe for apple pie, or what might be even more appropriate, comparing apples and "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

The recent online articles go on to claim that dogs can also count, add and subtract, and can do simple math much better than a toddler.

Again, really?

From CNN: "Counting ability is tested in drills such as one in which treats are dropped, one at a time, behind a screen. When the researcher either sneaks away one of the treats or stealthily adds an extra before raising the screen, the dog will wait longer - appearing to puzzle over the bad math - before eating the treats."

"Now we're giving him the wrong equation," Coren says of the final part of the study. "The dog acts surprised and stares at it for a longer period of time, just like a human kid would."
The implication here is that the reason the dogs are staring is because they've added up the number of treats in their heads before the screen was removed and have now discovered that some are either missing or that new ones have magically appeared.

But which is more likely, that dogs are able to feel an emotional attraction to certain things in their environment - toys, treats, other dogs - and can therefore "sense" when something's missing (or has been added)? Or that they engage in some form of mental arithmetic and count out, by number, how many things were there initially and either do addition or subtraction to "figure" it all out?

Here's an idea: what if the study had been done with objects that didn't interest the dogs? Toddlers can be taught to count on their fingers and toes, or to count the number of cats in a drawing, or to count spoons or matchsticks or cracks in the sidewalk or other items that wouldn't interest a dog in the slightest. Plus, how do the researchers know the dogs were really surprised when the screen was removed and weren't just feeling uncertain as to what the researchers wanted them to do next? To me this "study" seems to be a perfect example of confirmation bias, and as I wrote in a recent article here, "Dogs are confirmation bias with a tail." They'll do pretty much whatever you want them to, especially if there's nothing else very interesting (to them) going on at the time.

What Coren (and the "reporters" at AOL, MSNBC, and CNN) have failed to mention is that all animals, including rats and even some insects, have a basic "number sense." It's innate, it's hard-wired, it doesn't require arithmetic. Never mind toddlers; even 5-month old babies have this ability. So no, dogs aren't better at math than toddlers. Far from it.

In Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being, George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, and Rafael E. Núñez, a psychologist, argue that even the most abstract mathematical constructs arise from how the brain and physical body interact together with the world. They write, "Animals have numerical abilities -- not just primates but raccoons, rats, and even parrots and pigeons. They can subitize [instantly and fairly accurately perceive the numbers of things in a very small collection, as a robin might do with her eggs or a dog with his toys], estimate numbers, and count [just] as four-and-a-half-month-old babies can." (p. 21)

However, Coren insists, "These studies suggest dogs have a basic understanding of arithmetic, and they can count to four or five."

First of all, having an innate sense of quantity - again as a robin would with her eggs or a dog would with his toys - and having a "basic understanding of arithmetic" are two entirely different things. We're back to comparing apples to ... I don't know, multiplication tables. We could carry Coren's logic even further and ask: when a dog catches a Frisbee in mid-flight has he done some form of differential calculus in his head in order to predict the object's trajectory? Of course not; it's a simple sensori-motor skill. (Maybe not so simple, but the dog's behavior is not based on math or other feats of intellect.)

And while it may be true that dogs can be taught to "count to five," their ability to do this is not in the same ball park as a toddler's: not even close. (Remember, dogs don't have the ability to use language, therefore they have no words for numbers.)

In 1930, mathematician Tobias Dantzig first proposed the idea that animals and humans have a kind of mental accumulator, giving them what he called a "number sense." This is not the ability to count but a natural sense of knowing when something has changed in a small collection of items. In The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, modern French mathematician and cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene writes: "Whatever its exact neuronal implementation, if the accumulator model is correct, two conclusions must necessarily follow. First, animals can count, since they are able to increase an internal counter each time an external event occurs. Second, they do not count exactly as we do." (34) (Dehaene disagrees with Dantzig about what "counting" means - but then, one was German the other French.)

It's true, though, in a way. I taught my own dog Freddie to "count" to 5 many years ago: I would give him a number between 1 and 5 and then give him a treat if he barked 2, or 3, or whatever number of times I asked him to. But I didn't reward him if he barked out the "wrong" number. And sure enough, after repeating this procedure over and over many times, Fred learned to bark in accordance with the number given. The thing is - and maybe it's just because I have a different sensibility than Coren and others - I never got the impression that Freddie understood what he was doing. It was purely a rote behavior; he wanted that treat. That's light years away from "having a basic understanding of arithmetic."

So are these recent articles really a case of smart dogs? Or is it just more dumb science?

I'll let you do the math.