Tag Archives: Dogs

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

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

Is Ebola Coming for My Dog?

Ebola and dogsIn Spain, a nurse’s aide named Teresa Romero Ramos contracted Ebola from a patient (in a manner that has yet to be confirmed). In response, authorities quarantined her husband, Javier Limon, and three other people. And then today they killed her dog, a twelve-year-old mixed breed named Excalibur. The dog was showing no symptoms, and had not been tested and shown to be carrying the virus. (What message does this send to other desperately-needed health professionals dealing with Ebola victims? Just this: If you contract the disease during your work, your pets will be killed.)

In a funny (although not very “ha-ha”) way, this story may be bringing home the seriousness of Ebola to people who haven’t worried much about it. I think most people have indeed paid attention to it, and been concerned, but those of us living in the West have likely been assuming that this is a Third World disease and that the superior health systems in the developed world will be able to handle and contain it. There is some generalized apprehension, yes, but most individuals are likely not fearful for their own lives. (I think that most of us, at least until we get to a certain age, still regard ourselves as more or less immortal, anyway.) However, this killing of the dog is a little different. It is more mundane, more comprehensible: the government decided the dog needed to be killed, and it was (and this despite burgeoning protests and a petition garnering 350,000 signatories). We may find it hard to picture ourselves dying from Ebola, but we can more easily picture the van pulling up and the government agents arriving to drag our dog off to be euthanized. Continue reading Is Ebola Coming for My Dog?

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

The Cinch Review

The Origin of Dogs Gets More Mysterious

dogs not descended from wolves?It’s been conventional scientific wisdom for a long time now that dogs are descended from some wolves that somehow became domesticated many thousands of years ago, but this theory has been at the very least complicated by new genetic research which finds that dogs are in fact not descended from any wolves like those alive today. So in effect the evidence now shows that dogs are descended from another, unknown animal, a proto-dog, if you like, although scientists are currently theorizing that it was another kind of “wolf” that is now extinct, and that wolves and dogs of today share a common ancestor. Continue reading The Origin of Dogs Gets More Mysterious

The Cinch Review

“No” to Kennels, “No” to Crates: Dogs Rise Up (video)

Dogs say no to kennels and cratesIn the “viral” video embedded at bottom, a dog—a Husky named Blaze—is being asked to go into his kennel, and repeatedly and audibly he says “No.” The clip is getting millions of hits, with people all over the world chuckling at the dog’s close approximation of human speech, just as the two men in the video are laughing out loud at the dog’s protestations. Everyone’s laughing at what they hear, it seems, but nobody is actually listening to the dog. In fact it’s just what Simon and Garfunkel sang about all those years ago: “People hearing without listening.”

Despite what some people will say (“my dog loves his crate; he feels so secure in it”) dogs naturally hate being penned up in kennels and crates for long periods. Who wants to be put inside a box from which you can’t escape, and inside of which you can barely move?

Of-course, before a puppy is house-trained, the necessity and utility of confining him or her in a very limited space is understandable. But after being grown up a dog doesn’t need to continue to be treated like … like some kind of animal. Continue reading “No” to Kennels, “No” to Crates: Dogs Rise Up (video)

The Cinch Review

Dogs and a North/South Kind of Business

Dogs North South AlignmentIn case anyone missed the really big news of the year so far, a study was published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology that seems to demonstrate a sensitivity in dogs to the Earth’s magnetic field. Specifically, the study monitored 70 dogs (of various breeds) for two years and the researchers found: “Dogs preferred to excrete with the body being aligned along the north-south axis under calm [Magnetic Field] conditions.”

So, based on this study, when dogs, er, conduct their business, they prefer to face either north or south (or at least have their backs aligned along that axis). But are we talking about number 1 or number 2? Both, it seems, and for both male and female dogs, who were observed in these behaviors while they were off the leash and with various other safeguards to try and ensure that no undue influence was placed upon them by the observers.

We found no differences in alignment of females and males during defecation and of females during urination, which might be related to a similar posture the animals are adopting during defecation (in all dogs) and urination (in females). Urinating males have a slightly different preference to orient their body axis than urinating females (cf. Figure 3); this could be caused by leg lifting during urination in males. Indications of different directional tendencies depending on which leg (left or right) is lifted are currently under study. All recordings were made outside on open fields, and routes of walks were routinely changed to exclude or limit pseudoreplications which would arise when dogs are defecating or urinating at just a few places within their kennel or house yard.

So, as you can see, they put quite a lot of effort into this. The study was in part inspired by evidence of similar magnetic sensitivity in other mammals. The researchers’ fundamental conclusions are that … Continue reading Dogs and a North/South Kind of Business