Issue 6 |

Speak: An elegy

by on February 19, 2016

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head.
William Shakespeare

My son, Damon, thinks I give animals too little credit for intelligence. I, on the other hand, have accused him of giving them too much credit. Our differences in opinion became apparent a few years back, when he and his wife, Kim, found a stray Labrador-mixed-with-something-or-other puppy they named “Duke”. As time went on, Damon resented more and more my scepticism about Duke’s feats of understanding, while I found it increasingly hard to summon more than polite interest in the furry object of their affection, their conversation, and, especially, their photography—Duke with bat wings at Halloween; Duke in a Santa Claus hat at Christmastime; Duke and his Easter basket; Duke napping; Duke wide awake…

Damon and Kim were sure that Duke understood almost everything they said to him, that he felt affection, maybe even love, for them; that he got his feelings hurt when they fussed at him; that he liked to listen to blues music, and that once or twice he even tried to talk to them. I thought they were mostly anthropomorphising and that any affection Duke felt for them centred on their ability to open a can of dog food.

After several years of tension between us on this subject, when I told Damon about a Scientific American article that said only humans understand pointing when the object being pointed to is out of sight, he was outraged. For him, this unflattering comparison of human intelligence with the intelligence of other animals was the straw that broke the back of the proverbial camel (by some accounts, a creature surprisingly capable of holding a grudge).

“What idiot wrote that?” he asked. I could see a flush creeping up his neck and over his face. “Dogs understand pointing! Anybody who’s ever owned a dog knows they understand that pointing means ‘something’s over there,’ whether they can see what you’re pointing to or not.” After several on-the-spot demonstrations of Duke’s understanding of finger-pointing behaviour—demonstrations which Damon deemed to support his argument, but which seemed less than definitive to me—, my irate son upped the ante. He said he could teach Duke how to read.

This just made his position on Duke’s abilities all the more pathetic to me.

Right then and there, he hand-lettered a set of flashcards for Duke, and I watched his first experiment in teaching his canine buddy to read. He held up a homemade flashcard for Duke to look at; and, in a carefully neutral tone, pronounced the word on the card.  He repeated this procedure with each of the half-dozen or so cards he made—cards with words with appetite appeal, like “treat”, and cards with more abstract words, like “left” and “right”. All were words Damon and Kim used often in talking to Duke and teaching him tricks, like lifting his left or right front paw—whichever he was asked for—to be wiped off when he came into the kitchen from the muddy backyard. In the interest of eliminating confounding variables from his experiment, Damon covered his mouth with the flashcard so Duke wouldn’t pay attention to his mouth movement rather than to the word on the card.

Weeks passed, and the experiments seemed inconclusive. After a while, though, I stopped asking about Duke’s academic progress because Duke got cancer. Within a few months, he was dead. Damon and Kim were as devastated as if they had lost a close family member. To them, that’s what he was.

Would Duke ever have learned how to read those words? I guess it depends on your definition of reading. I’m not sure he would have attended to the details of each word’s unique graphic pattern enough to associate the written word with the sound of that word; but if he did, it wouldn’t have been much of a leap from there to associating the graphic pattern not only with the sound of the word, but with the object or action with which he associated the sound of the word.

It’s hard to test the difference between the mere association of a spoken or written word with an object or event and a conscious understanding that the spoken or written word refers to or names an event, person, or object. Dogs do seem to recognize spoken words and gestures as having communicative intent, but I don’t know of any research suggesting they understand writing as a way to communicate. A linguist would say that the former (just making associations) is reading words as “signs” and the latter (understanding words’ communicative nature) is reading them as “symbols”.

Dogs definitely have some of the skills thought to be basic to human language—for example, mastery of the idea of “object permanence”.  This is the understanding that an object still exists even when it is out of sight.  Many times I saw Duke go into another room for his kong when told, “Get your kong”. In their book, The Genius of Dogs, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods describe an extraordinary dog named, “Chaser”, who learned the names of over a thousand different toys, fetching any one of them from another room on command.

Another ability, the ability to embed ideas within other ideas, may be even more basic to understanding and using human language.  “Recursion”—the embedding of structures within similar structures, goes a long way toward explaining why sentences are so varied and complex. Linguists think recursion may even be crucial to remembering the past, imagining the future, and thinking about thinking. This view of recursion sees it as underlying not only the concept of object permanence but even our self-awareness, enabling us to imagine ourselves as thinking selves and to attribute thought (and thinking selves) to others as well.

In human language, recursion means that, theoretically, a sentence could go on forever.  An example I came across so long ago that I can’t remember where I found it shows recursion taken to the extreme:  The dog the butler the maid saw beat howled.  It’s a grammatically legitimate sentence, say linguists.  However, this oddly uncomfortable sentence isn’t likely to crop up in ordinary speech.  We’d be more likely to say, “The dog that the maid saw the butler beat howled”.  It’s easy enough to understand “the dog howled”, and even “the dog the butler beat howled”.  It’s the eye-witness maid who complicates things.  If the children in the household with the cruel butler were fond of the maid, we could complicate things further:  The dog the butler the maid the children loved saw beat howled. And so on ad infinitum.

As far as I’ve been able to find out, scientists don’t know of any recursive structures in dog’s communications.  However, in regard to one kind of recursive thinking—thinking about other minds—there are anecdotal reports that could be interpreted as evidence.  For example, Damon told me that he once watched Duke sneak up on a pigeon in the backyard.  Duke watched the pigeon closely and “froze” whenever the pigeon’s eyes looked in Duke’s direction.  When the pigeon looked away, Duke would creep toward it again.  If Damon’s account is accurate, it seems Duke conceptualized the pigeon’s line of sight and also imagined that the pigeon’s seeing him approach might result in the pigeon’s flying away.  Even though it could be argued that Duke’s sneaky behavior had little to do with imagining the pigeon’s perspective and a lot to do with what had happened in the past when a pigeon’s eyes were turned toward him, then we at least have to grant enough recursive ability for Duke to be able to learn from the past and imagine the future.

In reading about human and other animals’ intelligence, I’ve learned that hypothetical distinctions setting humans apart from other animals have lost credibility over the last couple of centuries.  For a long time, humans were thought to be the only tool-users, then the only tool-makers, then the only species with language, and now perhaps the only species with recursive thinking—the horizon keeps moving away.  The opinion that humans share many intellectual traits with other animals is due, in part, to the influence of Charles Darwin—universally recognized as a marvelous naturalist no matter how controversial his evolutionary theory remains in some corners.  Darwin, whose dogs kept him company on his outings even when he was an old man, wrote that dogs and many other animals share with humans “various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason”.

All the dog owners I know share this view about dogs.  My friend Barbara says that her Schnauzer, Mitzi, whines to come out of the kitchen and into the den to be with the rest of the family.  Mitzi’s whine, Barbara says, sounds something like, “wa, wa, wa-wa, wa”.  Barbara sometimes mocks her with a more pitiful “wa, wa, wa-wa, wa”, letting Mitzi know she has to stay in the kitchen for the time being.  According to Barbara, “we keep that up a few rounds and then she just snorts like a deer and plops down on the floor”. Barbara also told me that, when she points to the chair Mitzi uses, Mitzi races across the room and jumps up into it.

As to pointing, more recent research than the study reported in the Scientific American article that so upset my son has found what Barbara and Damon—among millions of other dog owners, already knew—dogs can understand pointing, even when the object pointed to is hidden from sight .

So, if Damon was right, and dogs can understand pointing and some spoken words and could perhaps learn to understand a few written words, was Duke as smart as Damon thought?  At the risk of exasperating readers hoping for me to come to some conclusion, I have to admit I still think it’s hard to say. Reading research on dogs’ abilities has made me realize that they are far smarter than I’d given them credit for.  Even so, I maintain that we can’t be absolutely sure what another human knows and feels, much less what a member of another species knows and feels. For example, what appears at first to be conversation between young children is often just a form of “parallel play”, in which each child talks in turn without any real attention to, or understanding of, what his or her playmate says. You could argue that a lot of adult conversation falls into the same category.

I’ve about decided that the question of how smart animals are is basically unanswerable. The nature of individual minds is so complex and the perspective of another mind, even a human one, so unknowable that there’s an important sense in which we are isolated even from those closest to us. However, I’ve also decided that what’s important is to care enough to try to understand other minds the best we can. No doubt the being that Damon understood to be “Duke” was partly a projection of Damon’s own desires and concerns, as are most of our perceptions. Still, however much or little the Duke that Damon knew was a projection of Damon’s mind, Duke made Damon’s life more meaningful than it would’ve been without him. Duke’s unique presence inspired a feeling of connection in Damon and Kim and raised questions in their minds—and mine—about who he was, who they were, and who we animals are. As the sum of the things he did and was, Duke spoke eloquently.

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