Anthropomorphism and The Dog

‘Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.’–Groucho Marx.

What, then, can humans learn about dogs if it’s too dark inside? The first thing writer, scientist, and dog-lover Alexandra Horowitz does in her book Inside Of A Dog is address the challenge of anthropomorphism–viewing the world as if humans were the centre–a view which threatens to turn out the lights and keep us in the dark.  But can Horowitz be truly a scientist without a tinge of anthropomorphism? How does she confront the anthropomorphism inherent in being a scientist, in being a dog lover, in being a human?

In this entertaining book (which I got at a bookstore, but you could get it at the library or read online) written by a member of one species (human) about another species (dog), anthropomorphism is a recurring theme. Dogs, she points out, have their own umwelt–worldview–and they see (and especially smell) things differently. We humans unconsciously put a spin on things. We understand things from our point-of-view. How can we hope to see things from a dog’s perspective? ‘Trying to understand a dog’s perspective is like being an anthropologist in a foreign land,’ she writes. ‘A perfect translation of every wag and woof may elude us, but simply looking closely will reveal a surprising amount.’ And so she reveals.


But anthropomorphising presents difficulties. Take barking, for example, which ‘strikes at the heart of the trouble of determining the subjective experience of an animal you cannot ask questions.’ Why do dogs bark? What are they trying tell us? Are they trying to tell us anything? Is it time for tea? Is it the end of the world? Isn’t it fun to bark?

And in the late nineteenth century, ‘animal’ stories–stories told as if the narrator were a dog or a cat–arose with writers who included Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolf. ‘It’s a sham,’ Horowitz writes: ‘there is no perspective of the dog in them.’ These were still humans putting human words, thoughts, and feelings, even if restricted or otherwise altered, into nonhuman mouths, minds, and actions. However, don’t mistake Horowitz for some kind of panentheist or transcendentalist, for she still sees nature as out there and animals as other-than-human, which means that for her as a scientist ‘behavior is a good enough guide to allow us to predict an animal’s future behavior well enough.’ Prediction and control are the real purpose of anthropomorphisis, which, I would argue, runs contrary to umwelt, to true empathy or altruism or compassion.

Prediction is not just a human ability. Dogs predict too. Even if you don’t say it or spell it, dogs can read very subtle clues and predict you’re going to, say, take them out for a WALK. Oh joy! (Unless it’s raining.) But prediction can be used either compassionately or controllingly, and that intention may make all the difference.

Or are dogs canine anthropologists, studying us as much as we study them, maybe even more so? In watching a human so intently, maybe as Horowitz wonders ‘it makes the dog vaguely human, too.’

Or are humans just convenient, ‘general-purpose tools: useful for protection, acquiring food, providing companionship,’ Horowitz writes. ‘We solve the puzzles of closed doors and empty water dishes.’ You get the idea–dogs might be dogomorphic. Ever the scientist, Horowitz writes that ‘other tests are necessary to determine if dogs are truly putting themselves in our shoes, and not just prone to follow that human,’ i.e., imitate. Research shows … imitation, but not mere mimicry. ‘Dogs may be able enabled to … look at us that allows them to use us to learn how to at act.’ In other words, dogs understand the concept of imitation. There’s a mind behind that behaviour. What is it thinking?

Perhaps Horowitz belies her scientist training when she ‘imagine[s] that they too might feel the mystery [of another species’ umwelt].’ For example, she writes, ‘a Seeing Eye dog must be taught the umwelt of the human, the objects that are important to a blind person, not those of interest to the dog.’ Appreciating differing umwelts, also known as empathy or altruism or compassion, can be learned, even if you don’t have much of a forebrain. ‘Once this happens,’ she cautions, ‘all hell can break loose.’

A different hell awaits those who do not learn empathy or altruism or compassion at all. That our culture practises anthropomorphism is not forgiveable, because it hurts others and damages our world. It may lead to our species’ demise. We would do well instead to learn and practice biocentrism, as we have done in many other cultures, and consider other species as equals, even if what they think and feel and do remain alien to ours. We could start with dogs.

Nice idea, but how do you make such science palatable? Luckily, Horowitz is a tasty, entertaining writer. For example, she begins a section with ‘HOW TO MAKE A DOG: STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS’. Her entertainment has a point: she wishes to communicate, and she does this by mixing in a generous dollop of yummy whipped cream with every serving of scientific fact.

In little journal extracts, Horowitz shares her own experience of living with a dog, Pumpernickel (Pump for short). These diary-like bits make her writing more personal, very human, for she is most expressive of her delight in all things canine and least detached, though her scientific writing too is very readable. In fact, the two–the personal and the scientific–go together. Just as a rose is a rose is a rose, a writer is a writer is a writer. Whether writing scientific description or personal memoir, she always excels.

Horowitz also uses these personal entries to introduce a behavioural topic, such as tail-wagging or body-shaking. They not only entertain, they serve as a bridge between the familiar–who hasn’t seen a dog shake–and the unfamiliar–what is going on inside a dog when it shakes? What is its umwelt?

She introduces theory of mind, the ability to ‘think about what others are thinking’–a very human trait (which apparently autistics lack). Do dogs have a theory of mind? Scientists have developed the false belief tests to find out. Research shows … more research is needed. However, ‘the more we learn of animals’ abilities,’ writes Horowitz, ‘the finer we have to split the hair to maintain a dividing line between humans and animals.’ Cuz there really is no line between humans and animals.

Maybe less lab research is needed, more field work. All this experimentation is not normal, Horowitz notes. ‘That is why I have spent a year watching dogs play’ at parks, in vet offices, streets, etc. Must be tough doing field research. However, play is open to scientific inquiry too, though it’s ‘paradoxical…. No food has been gained, no territory secured, no mate wooed.’ But slo-mo video playback research reveals … dogs ‘may have a rudimentary theory of mind’. This may allow them to appreciate differing umwelts, the beginnings of empathy or altruism or compassion, which, as I said, can be learned. Dogs are good learners–‘and learning is just memory of associations or events over time’ which means dogs have good memories. But does a dog know he or she has memories of one’s own, of one’s self?

The human land is separated from the canine land by a sea of ignorance. Science, writes Horowitz, may be a bridge between the two species: ‘We mind our own autobiographical journeys through life, managing daily affairs, plotting future revolutions, fearing death, and trying to do good. What do dogs know about time, about themselves, about right and wrong, about emergencies, emotions, and death? By … making them scientifically explainable, we can begin to answer.’

But does it take science to understand another species? Does our science, by being so anthropomorphic, actually get in the way of understanding another species? What if that species isn’t as cute and friendly as a dog? Is a parasite, a pathogen, or a carrier, like a bedbug, tuberculosis, or mosquito? Unwanted, unloved.

What if science is changing–we are changing, becoming less anthropomorphic, allowing us to truly understand other species? We are who we remember who we are. ‘There is a personal thread running through our memories: the felt experience of one’s own past, tinged with the anticipation of one’s own future. So the question becomes whether the dog has a subjective experience of his own memories.’ How can we use science to find out? Several pages later she concludes, ‘we don’t know yet if there is an “I” there behind the eyes–a sense of self, of being a dog. Perhaps there need only be a continuous teller for the autobiography to be written.’ Does that take science? What kind of science? What else?

Knowing right from wrong takes learning, takes a sense of self and culture. Two-year-old humans for example cannot really tell right from wrong, for they do not possess an accurate sense of self and culture. We don’t incarcerate them. Nor twelve-year-olds. But 22-year-olds we do because they ought to know better. Do dogs know better? Do they know right from wrong, which ‘are concepts that we humans have by virtue of being raised in a culture that has defined such things.’

According to The Great Law, there are some rights and wrongs which aren’t human, which are universal. My universe includes dogs. (It also included passenger pigeons.) The question was ‘whether the dog has a subjective experience of his own memories’. What does it matter, really? It matters because what if you get the answer wrong? What if you fail? Do you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again? Can you? It matters because there are no more passenger pigeons, and many, many other species. Funny how some of us get all tied up over a foetus but over a species we don’t care. Soon there may be no more polar bears, no more tigers, even no more humans and dogs.

In carefully designed experiments, Horowitz seeks to eliminate anthropomorphism, seeks to eliminate human causes for canine effects. That requires not only good design skills, but also fine observatory and judicious interpretive skills. For example, in an experiment a dog eats a forbidden snack, and then the human shows up. The dog looks guilty, not because the dog ate the forbidden snack (as we might think anthropomorphically), but because it is expected that the human will be angry and will punish the dog. ‘What the dog clearly knows is to expect punishment when the human appears wearing a look of displeasure,’ she writes. ‘What the dog does not know is that he is guilty. He just knows to look out for you.’

Horowitz comes to the end, to a dog’s death, which is certain. ‘What is less certain is whether our dogs themselves have any inkling of their mortality…. A life untrammeled by its end is an enviable life.’ In relating anecdotes of a heroic dog saving a human’s life while risking its own, she notes that ‘one does not have the full story of what happened, since the teller, with his [sic] own umwelt and particular perception, is necessarily restricted in what he sees.’ There may be a method in science–how it’s done–but there are people too–why it’s done. Last I checked, people weren’t dogs and dogs weren’t people; each has its own umwelt, its own reason why it does things. Can one species understand the reasons of another? Dogs may act heroically, but do they know it is heroic, or is there some other, doggy reason to act heroically, like barking to get attention for itself, not to save some human’s life: ‘Hey! You! In the river! Look at me! I’m barking!’ While all animals avoid pain, Horowitz points out, dogs and humans have to be taught about mortal danger and death.

‘Whatever we think … we are assured that dogs see and think something different.’ Horowitz believes dogs’ thinking is not reflective, it’s not thinking about thinking. It’s in the now. She writes that they live without the abstract, ‘consumed by the local, … in the moment.’ Does that lessen them? A mosquito thinks even less. Trees and rocks not at all (as far as we know). I’ve lived with some severely brain injured people who can hardly think (I think). Do rocks, trees, mosquitoes, dogs, and humans have rights to be, whether they think, think less, or think not at all? ‘To address this question,’ Horowitz writes, ‘is to begin an exercise in empathy…. The privacy of the dog’s personal thoughts is intact. But it is crucial that we imagine how he [sic] sees the world–that we replace anthropomorphisms with umwelt.’ And, when playing, ‘to have your play-slap matched by a dog’s is to feel suddenly in communion with another species.’

We share this planet. We need that sense of community, of play, with other animals.

Horowitz admits that ‘there is a limit to the science here. Science is quite intentionally not looking at the very feature that is most important to dog owners: to feel the relationship between person and dog…. The dull butter knife of science’ cannot reproduce this feeling. Whereas science strives for objectivity with double-blind experiments, actual ‘dog-person interactions … are happily double-seeing.’ She writes that it may not be ‘good science, but it is the stuff of a good interactions. The bond changes us. Most fundamentally, it nearly instantly makes us someone who can commune with animals–with this animal, this dog.’

Horowitz journals that ‘Pump changed my own umwelt.’ She contends that ‘dog science brings us closer to an understanding…. With any luck it will get under your skin and you will see the dog from the dog’s point-of-view.’ But do you need science to step around in another species’ skin or just a keen eye and a willingness to go where few have gone before? She offers some tips to us non-scientists, including:

  • Go for a “smell walk”
  • Train thoughtfully
  • Allow for his dogness
  • Give him something to do
  • Play with him
  • Spy on him
  • Don’t bathe your dog every day
  • Get a mutt
  • Anthropomorphize with umwelt in mind

The last bit of advice, ‘Anthropomorphize with umwelt in mind’, knows that ‘we have begun to completely lose touch with the animal in them.’ However, ‘we now have the tools to take a more measured look at their behavior: with their umwelt and their perceptual and cognitive abilities in mind.’ For Horowitz, anthropomorphizing with umwelt in mind offers the chance to form a ‘bond between human and animal–wrought of understanding, not projection.’ Horowitz must be a very good scientist and dog owner. She is a very good writer, for I was deeply moved.

I live with a dog, an eight-year-old puggle–part pug, part beagle, all nose–named Oscar. By my human standards he’s slightly overweight and slightly neurotic. He doesn’t seem to care. What matters is he’s wholly lovable. I love to watch him with my partner, with my daughter. I wish I had, though, Horowitz’ observational powers as well as her literary flair. Then I might understand Oscar better, his worldview, maybe even his world, and get inside a dog.

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