Friday, 11 January 2008

can dogs think of the future?

I wonder whether Penny can think about future events? Each day I receive an excerpt from a book, mailed to me from an intriguing site called Today's snippet was from a text by Daniel Gilbert called Stumbling on Happiness, published by Knopf, 2006, pp. 4-5:
"The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future. Now ... I do recognize that non-human animals often act as though they have the capacity to think about the future. ... For example ... the squirrels in my yard act as though they know they will be unable to eat later unless they bury some food now ... [but instead] they have regular squirrel brains that run food-burying programs when the amount of sunlight that enters their regular squirrel eyes decreases by a critical amount. Shortened days trigger burying behavior with no intervening contemplation of tomorrow ... Until a chimp weeps at the thought of growing old alone, or turns down a Fudgesicle because it already looks to fat in shorts, I will stand by my [statement]. We think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or ever has, and this simple, ubiquitous, ordinary act is a defining feature of our humanity. ...

"The greatest achievements of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future. As one philosopher noted, the human brain is an 'anticipation machine,' and 'making future' is the most important thing it does."
I understand what the first paragraph says, but I question the idea that dogs, for instance, can't imagine situations that don't exist right now. It seems to me that each evening Penny sits around speculating as to whether the possums have come out in our garden. She'll go out to see and come back if there's nothing happening. Surely, in a wild dog pack, someone in the pack must be able to plan ahead, or who would decide it was time to go on a hunt?

Stanely Coren, in his book How Dogs Think; Understanding the Canine Mind, says that the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Diogenes had a higher opinion of the intellect of dogs than we do these days. Diogenes even adopted the nickname "Cyon," which means "Dog." When he founded his school of philosophy, he and his followers were known by his nickname as "Cynics" or "Dog Thinkers."

Coren relates the following anecdote as evidence of his own dog's ability to plan ahead:
There are many times when the behavior of my own dogs brings me back to the admiring views of Plato and Diogenes. One cold rainy day, when I was feeling too tired and uncomfortable to take my dogs on their usual morning walk, they had to content themselves with being let out in the yard for a short while. For my flat-coated retriever, Odin, this simply was not an acceptable situation and, late in the afternoon, I was disturbed from my reading by a clatter at my feet. I looked down and noticed that Odin had somehow found his leash and deposited it on the floor. I picked it up, put it on the sofa next to me, and gave him a pat and a reassuring "Later, Odin."
A few minutes passed and there was another clatter at my feet; I found that Odin had now deposited one of my shoes beside me. When I didn't respond, he quickly retrieved the other shoe and put it down next to me. Obviously, to his mind, I was being quite dense or stubborn, since I still delayed going out into the cold and wet weather. It was at that moment that Odin ran to the door and gave a familiar bark. It was a distinctive sound that he only used when my wife, Joan, was approaching the door. I had spent several years teaching at a university in New York City and had developed the habit typical of New Yorkers, which involves always locking doors, even on days when I was inside working at home. This tended to annoy Joan, who grew up in the safer and less paranoid environment of Alberta, Canada. So when Odin gave his "Joan is here" bark, I got up to unlock the door rather than leave her fumbling for her keys in the rain and getting annoyed with my inconvenient habit. The moment I got within a foot or two of the door, Odin dashed back to the sofa and grabbed his leash. Before I had even determined that Joan's car had not arrived in its usual place, he was nudging my hand with the leash he carried in his mouth.
I started to laugh at his subterfuge. I could imagine his mental discourse of the past few minutes running something like "I want a walk, so here's my leash.—OK, I've brought you your shoes, so let's walk.—All right now, while you're already standing at the door, and while I'm now offering you the leash, why don't we just take that walk?" I have obviously added to Odin's behavior a whole lot of reasoning, an internal dialogue, and the idea that there was some kind of conscious planning involved; however, these behaviors certainly would have been consistent with his actions. And by the way, he did get his walk.
Coren suggests that in the seventeenth century the influential French philosopher Rene Descartes taught that dogs can not think, because it was not consistent with his religious beliefs to accept intelligence in dogs.

It's likely that dogs don't think as we do, though. William E. Campbell, in a book called How Dogs Think, suggests that they think in images. He points out that we humans think in images at times, too.

I like this excerpt from on The Tricky Issue of Assessing Dog Intelligence, which points out that as long as we keep comparning other species to our own way of seeing the world, of course they won't seem to be as intelligent as we are.
Our understanding of dog intelligence has come along way and certainly immense comprehensive strides have been made since the days of Rene Descartes (the renowned French philosopher, scientist and mathematician) who pioneered the school of thought that proposed animals were nothing more than biological machines!

According to Descartes, observed animal behavior amounted to nothing more than a reflex response to external stimuli, much in the same way as when a bare-footed person steps on a sharp object such as a thumb tack when they immediately withdraw the affected foot without any apparent conscious decision.

Descartes' views on animal intelligence, or more accurately put, lack thereof, not only denied the existence of intelligence in animals they propounded that animals were not self-aware and thus were incapable of emotional range or being able to consciously register pain. Being an extremely influential person of his time Descartes' opinions went a long way in justifying undue cruelty to animals be it through experimentation or otherwise.

However thankfully those barbaric days are long behind us and today it is the rare individual who still believes that animals are incapable of thought or emotions. That said though, there's still a ways to go before we can accurately qualify and quantify animal intelligence. Ironically this is perhaps so for the simple reason that since we measure the intelligence of different species against that of ourselves we are inherently practicing anthropomorphism (attributing human qualities and characteristics to non-human subjects, be they animals or inanimate objects), because we innately identify and attribute higher value to those behaviors that somehow mimic ours or make some form of sense to us.


Slavenka said...

Hi Parlance !
This is a very interesting post,
and my opinion is :dogs can think of the future.My dogs are proof for that.Every time when I want brush them my dogs run away from me
before I take brush.

Jabari said...

My Mum thinks dogs are more "creatures of habit" than future planners. Long ago she used take her dogs walking at 5:00pm every evening; so if she happened to get a phone call or be otherwise engaged at 5:00pm, she was pestered with the lead being put in her face and whingeing at the door. When these dogs had gone to "doggie heaven", she decided never to walk at the same time every day but varied the time from early morning to late night. But if the walk was not done by midnight, the same performance happened.
Now me--well I am perfect-- never whinge because my outings happen at any time, sometimes in the car to one or other off lead park.Other days I go on lead to the shops for coffee, but best of all is when I go to meet up with Penny. I am beside myself with excitement when my Mum says "We are going to see Penny".

parlance said...

Slavenka, there is an amusing children's book that has a dog who also didn't like being groomed, and he hid the brush. It was called "Harry the Dirty Dog". It sounds as if he was clever like your dogs.

I wonder if there is some subtle signal that you give when you are preparing to brush them. Maybe you always go to the same place, or something like that?

parlance said...

Jabari, it seems to me that if you get excited when mum says you are going to see Penny, then you are thinking of the future. Unless you run around the house looking to see if she is right there?
Perhaps it depends on how we define the future. If the future begins one second from now, I reckon dogs can think forward. If we defien the future as days, weeks or even years away, then I agree they probably can't.

kitiara said...

i just wanted to thanku for this article.It helped me prove my immature sibling wrong about how dogs are not infact dumber than people.
He thinks that they have trouble thinking because they dnt have a language.When they do have a language its just not english or a foreign language.
they use they're entire body to talk.
So to all people who think less of dogs dnt underestimate them just because u dnt understand them.

parlance said...

Kitiara, thanks for the comment. I
t's annoying, isn't it, when people insist on thinking that just because animals think differently from us, that means they are dumber.
I'm interested in this topic and I found some info along the same lines. It is a scientific experiment about how dogs can call up an image in their minds of their owners' faces. It's at
Also, I'm reading a great book about dogs and humans and I wrote about it last night. My post was dated 5 February.

boi*kip said...

Ok. Animals are less Intelligent than humans. That is fact. As individuals, we have a better ability to adapt and survive in changing circumstances than they do. This is so because we can build things. I wouldn't use the word "dumb" or "dumber" to describe a less intelligent animal. I love my dog and im not sure he can think of the future... By I know for sure that he dreams... Because he makes. It's little barking sounds when he dreams. I'm perfectly happy with him living in the present and just the present. I never want him to be burdened by the idea of linear time.

parlance said...

boi*kip, you are so right! Animals are less good at doing the things we humans call 'intelligent', and their ability to live in the present is their gift.

I've seen my dog dreaming, too.

I read recently that one of the reasons we have such big brains is that we need to calculate how to interact with the people around us. A computer can't do that. Now that we live in big cities (I think you live in New York, don't you?), I guess we will get bigger and bigger brains.

Nick said...

I recently got a new puppy (dane) that my current dogs (lab and setter) don't exactly like. When I got out of the shower, I noticed a pee trail from the bathroom through the computer room into the living room and ending at the dane's food bowl.

I know the dane didn't do this because 1) he won't go into the bathroom because the other dogs are usually in their kennels outside the bathroom door and they growl at him when he comes close. 2) he doesn't walk and pee. He hasn't figured out how to yet. 3) even if he had, the sway in the pee line wasn't big enough for the dane because he's higher off the ground than the other dogs. 4) I don't know of any dog that would pee in, on, or anywhere near their source of food.

That means that the other dogs had to have framed him. They had to have come up with a plan along the lines of "if (owner) is mad at the puppy, he'll send him away. So since peeing inside is bad, we'll pee to the puppy's food dish so (owner) thinks the puppy did it and will get mad at him. Then he'll be gone and it'll just be us again." I've had problems with the lab peeing inside before, but NEVER the setter. But the setter is the only one of them smart enough to come up with a plan like that (he will run to bark at the window while the lab is getting attention just so the lab will go investigate and he can double back to get all the attention for himself).

So... if that's not proof of planning and forethought, I don't know what is. The setter wants the puppy gone, so convinces the lab to frame him for peeing in the house.... I think I might have my hands full with this one. lol

parlance said...

Hi, Nick, that's an interesting anecdote. It sure would be some complex thinking by your dogs to come up with a plan like that.