Thursday, October 24, 2013

Really Science?!?!...I Coulda' Told You That!

I'm sorry in advance for my rant, but being someone who is pretty tuned in to dogs I've always had a tough time with how easy it is for people to dismiss both the awareness and emotional intelligence of our domesticated canine companions. From time to time, I come across articles like this one about new research suggesting that "dogs have rich emotional lives and acute levels of awareness" and all I can say is...duh. Of course I mean no disrespect to the subject of the article, the work of neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns. Quite the opposite - it's great work on his part, he did a baller job and seems like a cool dude that I'd want to 'talk dog' with, but DUH to the people who embrace this as a new idea.

So, why is it so common for people to dismiss or doubt some facts about Rover's mental and emotional capacities? Maybe it's because many people aren't aware of the scientific research that supports what many of us dog-laypeople have 'studied' in our own homes and known for years and they need the stamp of approval from 'science' to believe us lame non-lab-coat-wearers. Maybe it's because once we all face the fact that dogs are sentient beings with the ability to experience "human emotions" (I just love how we're so arrogant as to group a bunch of emotions as 'belonging' to humans) and connect to the world in a manner that is similar to that of a young child, we will have to take a long hard look at how we've treated some of our 'best friends' and quite possibly end up feeling like turds in the end.

This subject seems to find people primarily lumped into two group- those that believe there is something more to our dogs than fur, drool and tennis balls, and those that accuse the rest of us of anthropomorphizing. Ugh - I'm so sick of that word. Yes, there are a lot of people who incorrectly attribute human personality traits to dogs - we've all seen the videos of the 'guilty' dogs that people believe have the look of an admission of guilt on their faces (example here), but what most people don't realize is that those dogs are exhibiting what is called a submissive grin and they are attempting to appease their person and/or increase distance from a possible conflict. It has nothing to do with guilt! It's just one example of canine communication that most people don't understand. (Check out Patricia McConnell's explanation here, she's much more eloquent, respected, and a lot nicer than I am.)
So, circling back around - there are actually three groups we can lump people into here...
1.) Those that believe there is something more to our dogs than fur, drool and tennis balls, but completely miss the mark with their interpretation of what a dog may be thinking or feeling.
2.) Those that accuse anyone who attributes any thought, emotion, or awareness to dogs of anthropomorphizing.
3.) And finally, those that know there is something more to our dogs then fur, drool and tennis balls, and have it right! (See my list of recommended reading for some real awesome sources of knowledgeable folks.)

Let's break this down into something simple that even you can understand and can't argue with...
We'll look at the triune brain and what our canine companions share with us biped goons:

(The triune model shows three parts of the brain [or actually brains within brains as the brain has developed over a few bopzillion years, but that's too complicated for you])---
The 'reptilian brain': Responsible for the basics - survival, hunger, fight or flight, etc. Humans have it, so do dogs, and it works the same in both species.
The 'mammalian brain': Responsible for mood, memory, happiness, pride, depression, surprise, affection etc. Humans have it, so do dogs, and it works the same in both species.
The 'primate brain': Responsible for higher thinking, language, advance planning, crap like geometry, etc. Humans have it (some more than others - yes, I'm looking at you), dogs do NOT. 

Now do you get it? Your dog has the exact same parts of the brain that you do that are responsible for feelings, emotions, needs, and wants. Period! No further explanation/proof should be needed. 
...Seriously, are we clear on this yet?

I spend a lot of time connecting to my own dogs (training, playing, feeding, caring, observing, staring, obsessing), reading about dogs, and just spending time around dogs. Yes, I put sweaters on my dogs and wrap their gifts as if they really give a hoot, but I am fully aware of what dogs do and don't understand and what they do and don't feel and I haven't needed a scientific study to know that I am fairly accurate in my assessments. For me, most of this stuff is a no-brainer. That being said, I am so very grateful that there are more and more accredited, respected, and published scientists that I can site as a source when naysayers think I'm crazy for believing my dog has the ability to negotiate, manipulate, or experience 'human' emotions. Not for my sake, but for the dogs of today and the future, so that some day society as a whole might wake up and realize that when we assume guardianship of a dog we are taking on the responsibility of an intelligent animal that requires mental stimulus, physical and emotional care.

Finally, because this guy seems to be as smart as I am when it comes to doggy brains (ha! I'm kidding, he's probably only a little more than half as smart as me), I think I'll buy his book.

And... why oh why oh why does the person who wrote the piece I linked to at the start of this Kanye-esque tirade of mine insist on titling the article "Are dogs more human than we realize" and adding the line "are dogs people too"?! Really, writer lady?!?! Did you not research your subject at all??!?! Let's appreciate and understand dogs as DOGS and people as people. Besides, what a horrible insult to the canine world!

...Wait! I'm not quite done after all. I'll take this all one step further and challenge you to consider this... It's understood that if you take away one of the five senses, the others become heightened. I might go so far as to contemplate the idea that without the more advanced 'primate brain', the functions or output from the other two are more intense. Hmmmmm.   ....Daaanng, I'm gonna go get me one of them white lab coats now!

Now will you believe me?

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