Category Archives: Dogs (etc.)

dog looking in the mirror

The Dog in the Mirror

dog looking in the mirror
Do you believe that looking at yourself in the mirror makes you smart? Do you tend to presume that other people who you see looking into mirrors must therefore be very smart? You may fail to see the connection between mirror-gazing and intelligence—let alone wisdom—but there’s a school of scientific thought that employs it as a yardstick in judging the intelligence of animals. Coming across this idea recently (not for the first time) made me decide, in consultation with my dog, that it was time to clear it up once and for all.

The theory goes something like this: Chimpanzees can be coaxed to examine themselves in the mirror. They can identify odd things put by scientists on their faces as being on their faces, and can even be seduced into playing around with make-up, hats and funny glasses. It has yet to be proven but perhaps—given sufficient patience and the right equipment—they can eventually come to enjoy such rewarding pastimes as injecting themselves with botox or collagen. Scientists tell us that this all proves that they are self-aware, just like human beings (self-awareness being understood as “the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals”).

Dogs, by contrast, commonly ignore their reflections in mirrors.

Dogs, by contrast, commonly ignore their reflections in mirrors. So, we are told, they lack self-awareness, and this puts them on a lower rung of intelligence as compared to chimps or any other creature that can recognize and be fascinated by its own image in the looking-glass.

Yet, merely by observing my own little dog and making logical inferences based on her behavior, I am convinced that this is the boldest nonsense.

Let’s consider how dogs can be observed to deal in general with two-dimensional images of living beings. Anyone who’s owned a dog will likely have observed these things, but I’ll talk about my own dog, a small female mutt named Billie. Like many owners, I directed her attention to a mirror for the first time when she was quite young — still in puppyhood. And she reacted as most dogs will on first looking into a mirror: she seemed to think she was seeing another dog, and struck a playful stance as she would with most real dogs. She lost interest pretty quickly in the dog in the mirror, however, and trying to attract her attention to her reflection in mirrors on subsequent occasions fell flat. Pointing to her image in a mirror would at best make her sniff the exact spot I pointed to, as if there might be something good or edible there. You would think from her behavior that her own image was completely invisible to her, for all the attention she paid to it.

At the same time, like many dogs, she has proven capable of recognizing images of animals on a television screen. She will pay attention to a nice nature show with good images of interesting animals for several minutes (before falling asleep). On a few occasions she has approached the screen to sniff at especially exciting animals. So it’s quite clear that she recognizes the animals as being animals and on some level wonders as to their reality. She has also reacted with evident interest (signified by perked up ears and close visual attention) to still images of, for example, the face of a wolf or of a cat or even of a person she knows. She therefore has no great difficulty in recognizing what such two-dimensional images represent. (She has no interest in images of rocks or buildings or other inanimate things.)

The inescapable answer is that she does recognize it, and recognizes it as being herself, and for that very reason considers it to be of no interest whatsoever.

But how then can she be so oblivious to her own image in a mirror, which can only be more lifelike than any image on an electronic screen? The inescapable answer is that she does recognize it, and recognizes it as being herself, and for that very reason considers it to be of no interest whatsoever. She is interested in what another animal might do, but quite logically she has no curiousity whatsoever about what she herself might do, and she possesses no scintilla of vanity regarding her own looks.

About a year ago it occurred to me at some idle moment to try the mirror test one more time: she being much older and calmer, and me being slightly wiser as to how to give her directions. I placed her on a chair she couldn’t escape from, directly facing a mirror a few inches away. Getting her to look into the mirror would not constitute success; only getting her to look directly at herself would count. Using the most careful and calm words and gestures, I am of the belief that I actually briefly succeeded. “Look at you, look at Billie.” For a few moments, at least, I saw her look directly into her own eyes. She held her own gaze long enough for it not to have been a random thing. But other than that she had no obvious related reaction. She then turned to look at me, and wagged her tail slightly. If she could speak, I think she would have been saying, “OK … now what?”




And “Now what?” is precisly the unanswerable question. There is no utility to Billie in looking at her own reflection. She is aware it is herself—i.e. she is self-aware—but in the absence of vanity or neuroticism about her appearance, there is simply no response for her to make to it. The image of herself in the looking-glass may as well be invisible.

In anticipation of writing this reflection on reflections, I harassed Billie by putting her in front of a mirror one more time. This time I wasn’t trying to get her to look pointlessly at herself; I was just trying to get an appropriate photo to go along with the piece of writing (as you have to accompany everything on the internet with a picture or else it doesn’t exist). Billie kept turning her head to look at me as I took pictures, because she now expects to get treats when she poses for pictures (she works for peanuts: dry roasted, unsalted). I didn’t want her turning to look at me, so this was a bit of a problem. It was solved when she caught a glimpse of me in the mirror. She was satisfied to keep her eye on me there for a little while — long enough to take a series of shots including the one at the top and the one below here.

dog looking in a mirror

So she watched me in the mirror to keep herself informed as to whether I was reaching for a treat. In other words, she used the mirror entirely appropriately, understanding its function and purpose. She knew that the reflection of me was a true representation of me, in real time. Her own reflection continued to be of no interest whatsoever to her.

I have to conclude that this is not evidence of a lack of intelligence or “self-awareness,” but evidence instead of the employment of exceedingly practical sense and the total absence of useless vanity.

I don’t know if—overall—chimpanzees are “smarter” than dogs or not, but I think this comparison of the two animals’ behavior with mirrors demonstrates only one thing for certain: the moral superiority of the canine. Unless, that is, vanity is now officially listed among the virtues rather than the vices.

And if dogs possess this moral superiority as compared to chimps, the same equation does not come out very well for the only slightly less hairy ape writing these words.

And just to prove that there is indeed nothing new under the sun, the above conclusion is mirrored, after all, in Lord Byron’s famous “Epitaph to a Dog” from 1808.

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808.

Amen!

“The Man in the Looking Glass,” sung by Frank Sinatra

The Concern of a Canine

The Concern of a Canine

The Concern of a Canine
Yours truly is not a particularly friendly guy, as his friends would readily attest. My dog, a fourteen pound mutt named Billie, is quite different: a friend to anyone who makes eye contact with her. She is also quite different in the level of concern she’s capable of showing to unknown passersby. Life in the big city involves walking past countless individuals in states of relative disrepair; these include the addicted, the mentally ill, the disabled, the genuinely homeless and those who (for whatever reason) find setting themselves up in a busy location with the right begging shtick to be a worthwhile occupation. Billie will greet anyone who greets her, and has taken time for some I’d certainly rather walk right by.

Billie has long noticed people who seem to be on the verge of falling down.

However, the truly remarkable thing is that her capacity for concern can go beyond those who actually greet her. Continue reading The Concern of a Canine

rats

A Rat in Need …

ratsResearchers at Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan have been investigating whether rats are helpful to one another in times of trouble, and to what extent it might be said that they possess powers of empathy. To that end, they performed a series of experiments with rats in cages separated by a door that the rats could learn to open with their paws. They demonstrated that, in ordinary circumstances, a rat would not open the door to enable entry for another rat in the separate area of the cage. However, if the other rat were in distress—specifically by virtue of struggling in a pool of water—the rat in the dry area would tend to figure out how to open the door and allow that distressed rat inside to safety. Continue reading A Rat in Need …

Coyote Battery Park City New York

Coyote Caught in Battery Park City, New York

Coyote Battery Park City New YorkNew York, New York, it’s a wonderful town / The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down / The people ride in a hole in the ground … and the coyotes have now traversed this town all the way down to the Battery, in the form of Manhattan’s modern and posh Battery Park City, nestled in the southwestern tip of the island. Today a female coyote was cornered after a long pursuit by the NYPD at a sidewalk café in that neighborhood, shot with a tranquilizer dart and then delivered to the ASPCA. Continue reading Coyote Caught in Battery Park City, New York

Coyotes Now Colonizing Rooftops in Queens (and Why They Should Be Put on the LIRR)

Coyote roof QueensAs if to follow up on our story from a few weeks ago (“Coyotes in New York City”), a coyote was spotted prancing atop the roof of a bar in the New York City borough of Queens a few days ago.

Our previous story was really about the surprising development of coyotes showing up in Manhattan, which is a strange island nation about three thousand miles west of France. Queens, by contrast, is generally considered to be a part of the United States, albeit that due to its geography it is possibly even harder for coyotes to get to as opposed to Manhattan. Nevertheless, this is not the first sighting of a coyote in Queens. Continue reading Coyotes Now Colonizing Rooftops in Queens (and Why They Should Be Put on the LIRR)

New York Coyotes

Coyotes in New York City

New York Coyotes“Act big and make loud noises.” In the bad old days of the Big Apple, this might have been excellent advice for those occasions when you needed to take a walk to the bodega to stock up on beer and cigarettes. (And let it please the Lord for those days not to return.) Now, however, it is part of “Five Easy Tips for Coexisting with Coyotes,” which is advice for city dwellers from the New York City Parks Department, regarding, well, coexisting with coyotes. Because, they’re here, they’re hairy, and, according to the powers-that-be, they are apparently more than welcome to stay.

The Eastern coyote is sometimes referred to as the “Coywolf” because of evidence that it emerged via hanky-panky between coyotes and gray wolves. Its territory stretches from Ontario and Nova Scotia in the north down through New England and into New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And now you can add Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town neighborhood, among others, to places where the Eastern coyote has set his or her paws. Recent sightings of coyotes there and in other Manhattan locations have caused minor media ruckuses as people follow the chase, but the real news if you ask me is that the Parks Department is quite happy with them being in the city, and is expecting them to be around in Central Park for the long term. They’ve been sighted to the north in Bronx parks for quite a few years, so it’s not like they dropped out of the sky, but—on the other hand—the thing about the Bronx is that it’s a contiguous part of the United States of America (as startling as this may be to Kansans) whereas Manhattan is, well, an island. This has kept New York City proper insulated from quite a few things, like deer (and their awful ticks), bears (at least at the time of writing), in addition to innumerable wholesome virtues of the heartland that have never been proven to survive the journey over the Hudson or Harlem rivers.

So how are the coyotes getting here? It’s suggested they may follow “a train line;” whether on a bridge or underground, I don’t know. Five years ago, one was seen waiting on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel, and apparently it managed to come up with the toll, because a little later there was a big coyote chase in Tribeca resulting in one tranquilized canid.

So, a carnivorous predator, skilled at hunting singly or in packs, is invading New York City, competing with those humans here who already occupy the niche. Yet the Parks Department is not treating this as the prologue to an apocalyptic disaster movie scenario, but instead simply as nature taking its course. Coyotes are part of the food chain, the narrative goes, and they will help control populations of rats, rabbits and the like. We need to practice our “Five Easy Tips” for coexisting with them and go about our business.

Well, why do I strongly suspect this isn’t going to end well? For my part, I love animals, especially canids. I’m exactly the kind of fool who, if I saw a coyote in Central Park, would probably try to make friends with him, offering him lunch at the Shake Shack and an evening of music at the Village Vanguard. After all, the NYC Parks Department assures me that “nationwide, only a handful of coyote bites are reported each year,” and there are millions of people across the nation, and zillions of coyotes. What are the odds?


On the other hand, there’s a rational person buried somewhere deep within my skin who starts whispering: “BUT, there’s a lot of room out there in the rest of the country. Coyotes and people might coexist pretty well in Arizona, but how are they going to get along on a crowded 6 train?” Or indeed, how will they get along when dowagers strolling down paths in Central Park start seeing their Yorkies getting chomped up like so much beef jerky?

As far as the species homo sapiens goes, it occurs to me that we sure have funny ways of measuring progress. Time was, progress was defined by pushing back the boundaries of unforgiving nature; now we pat ourselves on the back for allowing it to encroach again on our carefully built settlements. I’m all for controlling the rat population in New York City, but if we want the coyotes to achieve it, we should equip them with badges and flashlights and set them loose on Lexington Avenue. We’re not going to do that. Instead, we’re apparently going to attempt some strange détente of wildness and urbanity.

But then maybe that’s what New York City has always been about. Good luck to the coyotes.

    The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb

    Wolf shall dwell with the lambDogs, we’ve often been told, are descended from wolves—or perhaps they’re more like cousins, from a common ancestor, depending on who you talk to. Whatever the case, sheep have little confusion over the issue: they recognize dogs as predators. It seems to be hardwired into the sheep’s nature. If you’re a sheep, when a dog starts approaching, you move in the other direction. This fact of life and nature is used to great effect by trained sheep dogs, who by varying their approach, gait and posture can get groups of sheep to do just about anything. Continue reading The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb

    The Cinch Review

    A Man and His Dog

    Billie in Central ParkIf you live in New York City, the odds are that you’re going to see famous people now and then. Even if you don’t go to their high society parties and clubs (and I for one toss every invitation in the trash on principle), you’re just fairly likely to run into them as they walk upon the sidewalk, something which even the famous must do if ever-so-briefly. Celebrities are no doubt bothered a lot less in Manhattan than they would be outside of it, because most Manhattanites (whether native or New Yorkers-by-choice) are loathe to act like they are at all impressed or fazed by anything or anyone. And then don’t forget that for every A-level famous person there are at least twenty B and C-level ones, some of whose faces may be only teasingly familiar from bit parts on TV shows, and many of them also live in New York City at least part of the time. Continue reading A Man and His Dog

    The Cinch Review

    Like Cats and Dogs

    cats and dogsTwo viral videos from the past couple of days provoke some commentary. One is a capture of inexpressible cruelty. I haven’t watched the video myself, being of far too sensitive a nature, and I do not recommend you to watch it either, but by all accounts it portrays a man coaxing a cat to come to him in a friendly manner before he mercilessly kicks it so that it lands about twenty feet away. The man’s friends are reported to be laughing in the background. It happened in Brooklyn, New York.

    The second video, which has caught the eyes of over a million people, features an Australian Cattle Dog named Max, who has apparently befriended a kitten named Ralphee who suffers from a neurological disorder, causing her to move in an unpredictable and wobbly manner. This video clip one may watch without injury. Continue reading Like Cats and Dogs