Emotional Health

Yes, Your Pet Is Really Smart

Poodle peopleIllustration by C.A. Martin


We humans are often told that we project human qualities onto animals and tend to see them as resembling ourselves more than is justified. Pet owners are particularly prone to this way of thinking, called anthropomorphism. This is our tendency to see animals as more like humans than may be accurate. We identify with our beloved pets and imagine they experience the world and feel things in ways similar to us. Looking at our dog cowering after he has had an accident, we assume he feels guilty. Our cats are labeled “haughty” or are seen as bringing us “gifts” when they drag captured prey into the house. But some experts think that we read too much into their feelings. What is really happening is the dog knows from experience that trouble comes after he makes a mess, and he is afraid, but he does not actually feel shame or guilt, according to some scientists.

Scientists who study animals are generally careful to label their behavior using terms that avoid this tendency. For example, what is called “sex” in humans is called “mating behavior” in nonhuman species. Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory University says this began with Aristotle, who developed a linear “Scala Naturae,” which ranks all life forms, with humans at the top, all the way down to the lowliest beings. De Waal asserts that it is not a useful model, and that many creatures have capacities that outstrip ours and cannot be evaluated on the same scale because they are so different. He says

“Clark’s nutcrackers (members of the crow family) recall the location of thousands of seeds that they have hidden half a year before, while I can’t even remember where I parked my car a few hours ago. Anyone who knows animals can come up with a few more cognitive comparisons that are not in our favor. Instead of a ladder, we are facing an enormous plurality of cognitions with many peaks of specialization. . . . In order to drive this point home, I invented the term “anthropodenial,” which refers to the a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals or animal-like traits in us.”

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Another expert, Temple Grandin, is an autistic woman whose different way of looking at things led her to have insights into how humans can treat animals more humanely and respectfully. Because of her own acute visual sensitivity, she has been able design environments for them that reduce stress and anxiety. Grandin brings a more empathic, sensitive perspective to animals’ needs and experience of the world because she is not “neuro-normal” and expecting them to be like us.

But de Waal thinks that in species closely related to us, like apes, anthropomorphism helps us understand their behavior. An example he gives involves tickling:

“Tickling a juvenile chimpanzee is a lot like tickling a child. The ape has the same sensitive spots: under the armpits, on the side, in the belly. He opens his mouth wide, lips relaxed, panting audibly in the same ‘huh-huh-huh’ rhythm of inhalation and exhalation as human laughter. The similarity makes it hard not to giggle yourself.

The ape also shows the same ambivalence as a child. He pushes your tickling fingers away and tries to escape, but as soon as you stop he comes back for more, putting his belly right in front of you. At this point, you need only to point to a tickling spot, not even touching it, and he will throw another fit of laughter.”

Spending time with apes is a way to truly appreciate our evolutionary history. Dr. De Waal makes the point that we could not have achieved such human characteristics as empathy and planning by “magic;” there has to be some step-wise evolutionary process that led to these traits, and they cannot be “unique” to humans.

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  • Linda White April 26, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    A lifetime of interacting with horses and dogs – and humans – has helped me recognize those two species’ability to learn incredibly complex tasks, Horses’ intuitive responses remind us that the only animal with skin thinner than theirs is the domestic cat. Horses, deer rabbits and and other species that are prey, rather than predators, have an eye set on each side of the skull . The matchless peripheral vision this creates, combined with those animals’speedy gaits, allow them to detect and escape from predators. Horses’ intelligence, memory, and capacity for learning – and remembering – subtle, complex task. Horses’ reasoning and cognitive abilities are often overlooked because, as prey, their first responses to anything unfamiliarare fear and flight.

    Predators, which includes domestic dogs and cats, have both eyes facing forward, the better to see long distances and detect movement. (What’s that? It’s a squirrel! And he takes off in swift pursuit.) Predators too are speedy, the better to chase down and capture their next meal.

    They are intelligent, capable of reasoning, and in fact,can be surprisingly wily in their own best interests. Most predatory species are, naturally competitive and often resist humans’ efforts to modify or control their behavior. Resistance occurs initially, usually persisting until that behavior is modified or extinguished … not because they are fearful, but because they are genetically programmed to be the alpha in any interaction – even among their own species.

    Yes, our pets are smart – very smart, and like horses, cattle, sheep, and every other species on earth, domestic or wild, they are at our mercy.

  • Mickey April 21, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Ford. I’d print the poem I read this morning by Simon Armitage but it’s a long one. I looked for a web address but way too much information out there. Before You Cut Loose is the poem. Borzoi sent it to me. Before You Cut Loose,

      put dogs on the list
    of difficult things to lose. Those dogs ditched
    on the North York Moors or the Sussex Downs
    or hurled like bags of sand from rented cars
    have followed their noses to market towns
    and bounced like balls into their owners’ arms.
    I heard one story of a dog that swam
    to the English coast from the Isle of Man,
    and a dog that carried eggs and bacon
    and a morning paper from the village
    surfaced umpteen leagues and two years later,
    bacon eaten but the eggs unbroken,
    newsprint dry as tinder, to the letter.
    A dog might wander the width of the map
    to bury its head in its owner’s lap,
    crawl the last mile to dab a bleeding paw
    against its own front door. To die at home,
    a dog might walk its four legs to the bone.
    You can take off the tag and the collar
    but a dog wears one coat and one colour.
    A dog got rid of—that’s a dog for life.
    No dog howls like a dog kicked out at night.
    Try looking a dog like that in the eye.

    There. It’s a great poem about our lovely four legged furries. We love them so.

  • hillsmom April 21, 2016 at 11:26 am