Monday, August 18, 2008
doggy do's and doggy don'ts.
I don't know if I've admitted this yet to the blogosphere, but I'm obsessed with dogs. Yes, everyone thinks puppies are cute, but I'm talking about having a serious love for them. When I was little, I only played with stuffed animals (wolves and foxes and dogs, oh my!) and I pretended to be a dog until an unhealthy age (don't judge!). I even sponsored a wolf, where you pay money annually to help take care of it and they send you the occasional generic photo. It's not very rewarding, but no matter, I felt so good about it.
Admitting this in public makes me feel like the equivalent of a crazy cat lady, which I'm already fast on my way to becoming. And when I see a puppy or a dog in public, I go "OOOOH!" instinctively. A baby? Meh.
I think it's because I've had dogs my whole life. When I was born, my dad already had a mammoth Great Dane named Virgil, and I grew up pouring water on his head and tugging on his tail as he stood there and licked my face. I've never had a bad experience with dogs, either. Even when we adopted a husky mix and she bit me, I could understand why she did it. Dogs are so adaptable that they'll be as good or bad as you train them to be. And this is what amazes me most: no other animal has been as successfully domesticated to be in tune with human behavior. I love my cats, but I don't understand why they do what they do. Dogs make it clear what they want from you. When they want to play, they bring you a toy, whine, and nudge the toy a little closer. Cats with the same desire yowl at a wall.
Over the weekend I saw THE most amazing documentary on canine intelligence. I think I might even order it so I can show everyone who doubts how perceptive dogs can be.
-Dogs can learn by inference. The average dog understands about 150 words, but there is a dog in Germany named Rico that can separately identify each of his 200+ toys. In the example shown, he sat in the middle of a circle of his toys and a man would pull a card out of a hat at random with the name of one of his toys (Octopus, Bear, Bone) and read it. Rico would then go around the circle and bring back the correct one. But then they introduced a soccer ball toy he had never seen before. They told him to get the soccer ball, and he went around the full circle of his toys, mentally identified the name of each one, and inferred that the one without a name he knew must be the soccer ball. Researchers in Italy created a version of this study with "regular dogs" and found that they all were able to infer new information in this way.
-Dogs naturally understand many human gestures. An animal behaviorist sat in a room with a dog and two cups. She put a treat in one of the cups while a board hid them from view and shuffled them around, though both cups were scented to smell like the treat. Then she removed the board and pointed at the cup with the treat in it. Ninety percent of all trials (with different dogs who had not been trained), they immediately went to the right cup. She tried again with her eyes, by looking animatedly at the correct cup, and the same results happened, even with a six-month-old puppy. Though this doesn't sound that amazing to us, even chimpanzees (which share how much of our genetic material?) don't understand this kind of human gesturing. Because they haven't been bred to connect with humans like dogs have, chimps just pick a cup at random, regardless of any furious pointing.
-A doberman that a woman in Gaithersburg, Maryland adopted when he was four regularly arranges his toys spatially and categorically. He puts them in triangles, parallel lines, and semi-circles. Furthermore, he also arranges them by type (frogs, bears) and either face up or face down. Sometimes they're even "holding hands" or have arms around one another. They showed actual video footage of him arranging the toys (because how easy would that be to fake?), and he actually places a toy, steps back, and then moves it to a new position if he sees fit. They didn't really have an explanation for why he does this. One woman theorized it was his "creative expression", and to be honest, it sounded very new-agey and hard to believe. But either way, it was ah-maaaazing!
Stuff like this makes me realize that yes, I probably have an unhealthy affinity towards dogs, but also that their full intelligence is not yet understood. In good objective fashion, the documentary posited that perhaps some people want so badly to see intellect in their dogs that they project it when it isn't there, and it's true that it's tempting to look into a dog's eyes and see real understanding. Still, the objective evidence and overall theme of the show emphasized their ability to adapt to their environment (which, in effect, is us). That adaptability, they explained, is what comprises any universal definition of intelligence (rather than such narrow constraints as the ability to do tricks, or math, as it were).
Don't get me wrong, I really hate when people anthropomorphicize their pets (dog yoga is retarded), but at the same time, too many others treat them like objects. I can't even imagine what kind of sociopathic tendencies a person must possess in order to be able to physically injure or kill a dog without feeling remorse. I'm talking to you, Michael Vick. (Because I'm sure he reads my blog!) But really, the defense that "dogfighting is a Southern thing" is utter bullshit. Most of Spain acknowledges that bullfighting is both historic AND antiquated, so why can't we? I'm all for understanding cultural practices before criticizing them, but I'm also sick of cultural relativism being used to justify horrific "customs". Is that a legitimate excuse for slavery and domestic abuse as well?
The worst part about animal abuse, especially towards dogs, is that not only do they convey how much they suffer (that part is scary, for reasons above), but that their dependence on human care leads to them having such innocent, GOOD perceptions of humanity. I don't know if "forgive" is the right word, but that's what they do. Even the Michael Vick dogs, dogs that had their mouths duct taped shut by people they trusted in order to be good target practice for other fighting dogs (they're defenseless that way), are being successfully rehabilitated.
If you've ever watched one of those animal-cops type shows, too often the rescuers find a dog that has been abused and neglected by their owners, left outside for weeks without food or water while chained to a tree. A person in that situation would surely have lost faith in humanity, and most other animals do the same. But what is the dog's natural response to these people? A wag of the tail and a lick to the face.