A Dog’s Life


I’ve just finished ‘In Defence of Dogs’, a fascinating book on the evolution and psychology of our four-legged friends. Packed with insights, perhaps the most important is: they’re not half as complicated as we think they are.

That’s not to say dogs aren’t smart. But they proceed by ‘associative learning’ – always assume result b) follows directly from cause a) i.e. that which immediately preceded it.

Dogs, it seems, have no real capacity for introspection or to place events in the past – even the comparatively recent past. So shouting at them when they finally come back – or when you come back home and they’ve made a mess – just confuses them.

In the dogs head it’s “Smell x, smell y, hear shout from owner, bark, sniff, run around, bark, wag, return to owner – get shouted at.” The only associative learning possible from this is ‘Sometimes when I return to my owner I get shouted at.’

Dog owners project the full gamut of human emotions onto their dogs – guilt first and foremost. I did, Charles Darwin did, every dog owner does. But in fact there is no evidence dogs can feel guilt or can learn from it.

But they are hugely sensitive to humans and very attuned to us. So they can certainly tell when we’re not happy with them. What they can’t tell is why, unless it’s for the very last thing they did.

The capacity to appear ‘smart ‘ whilst lacking complex cognition is not a bad thing to have in mind for young kids too. We easily assume kids have fully featured introspection, a ‘theory of mind’ and the ability to think ahead. But a focus on the immediate and simple ‘associative learning’ is undoubtedly a big part of how kids are too.

My supersmart 8 year old daughter – on getting out of the bath last week – said: “Daddy, it seems to me that other people aren’t always thinking the same things that I am thinking.” “Indeed.” I said. “So how can I tell what other people are thinking” she asked? “That, my love”, I replied ruefully, “is the entire complexity of human life.”

On one level, it’s a bit sad to learn dogs can’t do complex emotions. It makes them seem a bit simple. But there is overwhelming evidence that dogs can – and do – do ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and most of all ‘love’.

And they reserve their deepest, most unconditional love for us – humans of all shapes and sizes, personalities and temperaments, faults and failings – their owners.

It’s a dogs life being scolded for stuff you can’t remember or understand. But what ‘In Defence of Dogs’ establishes beyond doubt is; we towering two-legged creatures are the centre of their world. We should aim to love them as much as they love us.

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