Do dogs think? Do they have a mental picture of the world like humans do? Could we say that a dog is conscious and self-aware the way that people are? Do dogs have true emotions? Compared to humans, just how intelligent are dogs? If you ask those questions when you are in a room full of behavioral scientists and philosophers, you are bound to start a heated argument.
Despite the fact that paleontologists have proven that humans and dogs have lived together for at least 140 centuries, there are still many different viewpoints about the workings of a dog's mind, or even if a dog has a mind. For some people the dog is nothing but an unthinking, fur-covered, biological machine, while others consider dogs to be much like little people in fur coats.
Most owners of pet dogs feel that dogs have something like true intelligence and consciousness, although they suspect that dogs often fail to show it for some reason. This notion is captured in a folktale told in Zimbabwe which says that dogs are not only very clever but they even know how to speak. It is just that they choose not to. According to the story, the hero Nkhango made a deal with the dog Rukuba. If Rukuba stole some fire from the god Nyamurairi, people would be dog's friend forever. Dog kept his part of the bargain and gave people fire. Later Nkhango asked dog to help him hunt dangerous animals, stand guard, herd animals, and do other difficult jobs. Finally Nkhango decided that dog should be a messenger. This was too much for dog. After all, since dog had given people fire, he felt he should be allowed to just lay near it in comfort. Rukuba thought, "People will always be sending me here and there on errands because I am smart and can speak. But if I can't speak, then I can't be a messenger." From that day since, dogs have chosen not to speak.
Even educated and logical people sometimes have odd ideas about the mental capacities of dogs. This was demonstrated to me by a lawyer involved in one of the most public and controversial trials in U.S. history. The story of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, and the subsequent arrest and trial of the sports hero and actor O. J. Simpson, is generally well known. However, there was also a dog involved, an Akita named Kato, which was owned by Nicole. Kato entered the story because one of the neighbors heard the dog's agitated whining. It was then that the neighbor noticed there was blood on Kato's feet and thought that the dog was injured. As he went to return Kato to Nicole, the dog pulled in the direction of the garage. This was how the bodies were discovered. Many people felt that Kato had seen the murder and was trying to get help. One morning, while O. J. Simpson's trial was in progress, I received a phone call from a lawyer associated with the court proceedings. He offered me a lot of money to come to Los Angeles to meet with Kato and to see if I could get the dog to identify the murderer. I tried to explain that, in comparison with humans, dogs have a mental ability similar to that of a two-year-old child. I asked him if he would expect a human two-year-old, with no clear understanding of death and limited language ability, to be able to comment on an event that had occurred nine months earlier. "Look," he pleaded, "couldn't you just come down and interview the dog?" Forgetting that some lawyers lack a sense of humor, I quipped, "You mean something like getting him to bark once for 'yes' and twice for 'no'?" The amazed voice on the phone asked, "Could you do that?"
This book is my attempt to explain to the world (including that lawyer) how dogs think. To understand the canine mind requires that we know a lot about how dogs sense the world and the degree to which they have been genetically programmed to perform their doggy behaviors, as well as what and how dogs can learn and adapt their behavior to changing conditions. In the process of exploring this we will talk about many issues that are of interest to anyone who lives or interacts with dogs. We will learn about the personalities of various breeds of dogs and how early experiences can change their temperaments. We will also explore the changes that occur in the dog's mind as he matures and ages. Along the way we'll even consider some of the stranger questions that people ask about dogs: whether they have an artistic sense, can understand mathematics, have ESP, can sense future earthquakes, or can even detect cancer in humans. This is a book based upon some of the new and exciting scientific research that is beginning to give us a glimpse of the workings of that fur-covered mind. You may find some surprises here, such as some capacities and abilities you didn't know your dog had or some abilities you think he has which he does not. You may also find some ways to understand your dog better, to communicate more clearly with him, and to help shape his behaviors so that he fits into your life more comfortably. You will also find some interesting data and some fascinating stories about how dogs think and behave that you can use if you ever find yourself joining that argument in that room full of behavioral scientists and philosophers.
Finally, I must acknowledge that in many ways this book could not have been completed without the help and support of my clever and loving wife, Joan, who struggled her way through the early drafts.
Copyright © 2004 by SC Psychological Enterprises, Ltd.