Expert Voices

Science Suggests 'The Dog' Doesn't Exist (Op-Ed)

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff's latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (New World Library, 2013). This Op-Ed is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Many people, researchers included, like to think broadly about species-typical characteristics. It's easy to do when considering anatomical traits — for example, all dogs have a tail (even if they differ greatly in length and fluffiness), a muzzle (long, short, narrow, or broad), and a nose. However, when it comes to behavior, much research, including citizen science, has shown that dogs and many other animals vary greatly in cognitive skills, emotional reactivity, personality and temperament. Thus, it's difficult to accurately talk about "the dog," "the coyote," "the chimpanzee ," or even "the eagle " or "the goldfish."

Later this month, I'm traveling to Italy to lecture on the emotional lives of dogs and other animals. In preparation, I've been revisiting an excellent new book edited by a fellow Psychology Today writer, Alexandra Horowitz, called "Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior."

Back in March, I wrote a short essay about the book, as the essays in this latest encyclopedia of dogs are dog-centered in that they weren't written merely because dogs are so important to humans or from the perspective of what dogs can do for us. Instead, the essays acknowledge that dogs are wonderful animals to study in their own right and from whom we can learn a good deal about them and other animals, including wild canids and humans. According to the book's description, it "reflects a modern shift in science toward considering and studying domestic dogs for their own sake, not only insofar as they reflect back on human beings."

What is truly invaluable, in addition to the incredible amount of information the authors present and discuss in detail, is that some of them write about the individual differences of the dogs being studied, and how those differences can influence the data collected. There also are discussions about how the data are actually collected and how differences in methods can influence results. The book also highlighted how scientists interpret and explain the same data in different ways. These crucial discussions really made me think not only about who dogs are, but also how science is done and the results researchers disseminate. I also realized once again that normative thinking about an animal called "the dog" is misleading and shortsighted. The same can be said for all animals who display a lot of individual variation in behavior.

The big picture view

There's a big picture to Horowitz's book that needs to be recognized and appreciated. It's a comprehensive and up-to-date encyclopedia about dogs, with valuable lessons about how scientific research is done and how results from different studies that focus on similar phenomena need to be carefully compared and analyzed — a gem for critical thinking.

For example, one essay asks if dogs always perform better or worse than wolves in tests of cognitive skills, such as following a human's gaze or pointing. No, they don't. In fact, there's a lot of variation, and the results depend on the individual histories and personalities of the dogs under study, the research environmentand the methods used. Are there consistent breed differences? Not really. My reading is while some general statements can be made about breed-typical behavior, it all comes down to the traits of the individualdog. I think anyone who's shared their home with dogs of the same breed will tell you that there are notable and interesting differences among individuals that rival between-breed differences. [Does a Dog's Breed Really Dictate Its Behavior? (Op-Ed)]

The reason I stressthat "the dog" doesn't really exist is because of the variation among individuals and breeds. So, when someone says dogs do this and wolves don't, or dogs always do this or that, these are misleading claims. We must be careful of oversimplifying what we actually know about "the dog." And, of course, this isn't a criticism of the researchers or the work they do, but rather a fascinating fact that makes the science of dog cognition and behavior — and their emotional lives — all the more interesting and captivating.

Most dogs are not "first-world pets"

Another important aspect of whom dogs are centers on the fact that "the majority of dogs are not first-world pets," Monique Udell and her colleagues have said, but rather "scavengers on the periphery of people's lives." Researchers have estimated that around 75 percent of the billion or so dogs on the planet live in the developing countries and many are pretty much on their own. They also are not always really "our best friends," nor are we necessarily their best friends.

These ideas and the above quotation form the basis for an essay in the book by Monique Udell, Kathryn Lord, Erica Feuerbacher and Clive Wynne called "A Dog's-Eye View of Canine Cognition." It is the book's most critical essay, in that the authors take on a number of "superstars" who have done a lot of excellent comparative research in the area of dog cognition and behavior motivated by the close and long-term historical association of dogs and humans during the process of domestication — and the fact that wolves are the common ancestors of dogs (see Mark Derr's excellent book How the Dog Became the Dogand his insightful and well-researched essays for Psychology Today). Udell and her co-authors instead argue — some might say too fast and with a bit too much zeal — that "the sensitivity of pet dogs to human actions and intentions that has been a major focus of recent research is unlikely to be a special adaptation or case of co-evolution, but rather is the expression of basic processes of conditioning as well as social and biological traits that domesticated and wild canids share." Taken literally, but I don't think too liberally, this basically says that much of the detailed research on dog cognition isn't worth much at all.

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The researchers whose work has been dismissed for one reason or another have responded to these criticisms, and references can be found in the book and elsewhere. Surely their work is valuable and contributes to the increasing database on dog cognition and behavior. There has to be room for different views in this rapidly growing field of study.

The authors also note that before people make generalizations about dog behavior it is necessary to conduct cognitive studies on populations of free-living and feral dogs who haven't been around humans much, if at all. However, these studies are extremely difficult to do because many of these dogs actively avoid humans like the plague, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get them to sit still long enough to partake in any sort of controlled setting. Nonetheless, these research projects will provide the data that are needed to assess sweeping generalizations about the behavior of "the dog."

As they try to demystify dogs and get us to think out of the box, Udell and her colleagues support viewing the dog as "a biological object with psychological properties." I really don't know what this means, but surely dogs are not objects, and no object I know has psychological properties. Dogs clearly are highly sentient and deeply thinking beings. Indeed, that dogs have these traits is implicit throughout their essay and all others.

Dogs make messes

I'm not an expert on experimental studies of dog cognition — my expertise lies in studies of social behavior and emotions. My learning curve was vertical as I read the essays in this book, and it forced me to admit that dogs do make messes (in academia, not only pee and poop). However, they are good messes in that they force us to come to terms not only with the fascinating lives of dogs, but also how science is done and how results are interpreted, explained and criticized. Open and constructive debate is essential in the business of science and this aspect of the book is most welcomed and much needed. I'll let the experts have at it as additional research is conducted and presented in scientific journals and at scientific meetings. Informed and friendly debate will advance this field of study.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "Do Dogs Really Feel Guilt or Shame?" This article was primarily adapted from the post "The Messes Dogs Make: Science Shows 'The Dog' Doesn't Exist" in Psychology Today. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.