Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why Do Some Dogs Act "Sneaky?"

This article is linked to a recent blog article I wrote for PsychologyToday.com. If you've clicked on the link in that article, please scroll down to the red sentence below to avoid having to re-read the material from that article.

Why Do Some Dogs Act "Sneaky?"
"Uh-oh, I think someone's coming!"

In a recent blog article Marc Bekoff has said that dogs -- these amazing animals we all love so much -- have what’s called a Theory of Mind, a theoretical construct used by cognitive researchers to determine where a particular species’ forms of cognition lie on the evolutionary and psychological scale. In the study Dr. Bekoff cited, what’s ostensibly been proven is that dogs have the first of three levels of a ToM, the conscious awareness of the perceptual states of other beings (also called “mind reading” by cognitive scientists).

Bekoff says, “We”ve learned that dogs know what others can and cannot hear,” and provides a link to a new study “proving” this idea.

I’ve read the paper, and I don’t think it comes anywhere near to proving that “dogs know what we can and cannot hear.” The researchers have clearly assumed that this is so, but I don’t think that, within the confines of their study, they’ve showed any such thing.  

Here’s how the study was done.

20 dogs were collected to see if they changed their behaviors in relation to whether a human being could or could not hear what they were doing.

1) “Dogs were allowed to familiarize themselves with their surroundings by exploring the area (10 – 15 min.).” I don’t think this enough time to get a true baseline on how anxious the dogs might or might not have been before the trial started. It would have been better to let the dogs explore the space for at least an hour a day, each day, for two weeks. 

2) “Following acclimation, dogs first completed a short inhibition task to mark the human as ‘gatekeeper’ for treats.” I agree this is probably an important step to set up the dynamic of being given access to treats only when a human allows the dogs to do so.

However, as above, I think it would have been better if the dogs had all been acclimated to the researchers, i.e., fed by hand, once a day, every day, for two weeks. This would have greatly reduced whatever baseline anxiety they might have had about those persons.

It’s also not clear how many dogs passed or failed this first test, or how they failed, exactly. “Dogs were allowed a maximum of 5 min to take the treat. If the dog had not taken the treat in 5 min, the dog was given the treat.” What happened to the dogs who didn’t wait? We’re not told.

3) After the inhibition test, the dogs were shown two translucent containers. Each had three strings of small brass bells, hung across the openings. On one container, the “ringers” had been removed. The other bells rang normally. When the researcher put treats in the containers, she made sure to demonstrate the noisiness, or lack thereof, for each container. (Without seeing the video, I’m not sure what impression, if any, this made on the dogs at the time this demonstration was performed.)

4) Each dog was only given one trial, which makes perfect sense. Subsequent responses are more likely to be the result of learning rather than of some innate cognitive faculty.

Once the “sound properties” of each container had been demonstrated, “the experimenter sat between two containers,” and either looked straight ahead (Looking Position) or “pulled her knees to her chest and placed her head between her knees, facing the ground.” (Not Looking.)

Then the dogs were given permission by their owner or another researcher to go get a treat.

5) When the experimenter was in the Not Looking position (knees pulled to her chest, hiding her face), the dogs always chose the silent container. When the experimenter was in the Looking position, each dog’s choice of container seemed entirely random. 

“This suggests,” the researchers conclude, “that [the] dogs’ pattern of approach in the Not Looking condition was not due to either a general preference for the silent container or an aversion to the noisy container. Instead, dogs appeared to prefer the silent container only when the experimenter was not looking and therefore did not have knowledge of their approach. This suggests dogs took into account the noise caused by their approach only when that noise could change what the experimenter knew about their actions.”

As an attorney in one of my novels might say, “Objection. Based on facts not in evidence!”

There is no clear evidence that the dogs were showing an awareness of the humans’ knowledge states. I would suggest that without giving the dogs enough time to acclimate themselves, both to the space and to the strange “gatekeeper,” it’s entirely possible that, to paraphrase the study, the “dogs significantly preferred the silent container only when a strange person sat in front of them in a strange position, with her eyes hidden from view.” And I would paraphrase the conclusions drawn as follows: “Dogs appeared to prefer the silent container only when the experimenter was acting in a strange manner, with her eyes hidden, which from the dog’s point of view, created feelings of uncertainty. This suggests dogs took into account the noise caused by their approach only when that noise would further impact their feelings of insecurity.”

The researchers don’t give us any insight into why they think the dogs felt that they had to be quiet. Since the dogs were being “allowed” to get a treat, there’s no logical reason for them to be “sneaky” about it. So what was their motive in “making less noise?”

Instead of setting up an artificial study, in an artificial environment, as was done here, let’s look carefully at one way that dogs do seem to be acting sneaky when in their home environment: the dog who sneaks up on the bed only when his owners aren’t home or are fast asleep.

This would seem to be based on the dog’s knowledge of its owner’s perceptual state, correct?

So, absent a ToM, how does that happen?

First of all, there would be no need for a dog to act sneaky unless he’s engaging in a behavior that will “get him in trouble.” Very young puppies never act sneaky. Everything is jake, as far as they’re concerned. It’s only when their owners start scolding them, or pulling them away from things that interest them (like mommy’s dress shoes, or the television cords), or lunge at them when they try to make inside the house, do they start to “act sneaky.” So sneaky behavior is based on past experience, not necessarily on an innate understanding concerning whether we can see or hear what they’re doing.

Secondly, a dog’s social instincts give them very sensitive “antennae” for reading our emotional energy and our attentional states. They learn to detect even the slightest difference between an owner who’s wide awake (active, or +, levels of energy) and one who’s fast asleep (absent, or -, levels).  They also have a capacity for reading our levels of intensity. The more intense the energy coming from the owner, the more the dog will be motivated to act in certain ways to either avoid the owner, acclimate themselves to the energy’s intensity, or to find a way to offset or offload it.

So being able to read the owner’s energy and attentional states is step one.

Step two is that, over time, and with experience, the dog learns that whenever he tries to get up on the bed when the owner is lying in bed but is still in an active (+) state, the owner pushes him off. But when the owner is in a passive (-) state, she doesn’t.

The dog also learns that certain ways of approaching the bed (based on a simple ability to register how the dog’s own energy does or doesn’t cause a perturbation in his owner’s energy and/or attentional states) can sometimes change the owner from a passive (-) to an active (+) state, which results in the owner pushing the dog off the bed. The more intense the owner’s reaction to the dog’s behavior, the sneakier the dog will be.

In this model, the dog’s “sneaky” behavior is based solely on a) the ability to read the owner’s energy states and b) past conditioning. That’s it. 

Some may think I’m splitting hairs. But hopefully this analysis will give the careful reader a slightly different way of interpreting their dog’s behavior, one that doesn’t imply that dogs are doing the things they do because they’re capable of knowing right from wrong, that they understand when they “did something wrong,” or that they do things with deliberate intent.

The more we understand how dogs really think, they better our relationships with them will be. 

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

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