A few years back, the world got its shortpants in a wad over the beating IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer administered to world chess champion Gary Kasparav. They bunched even tighter last year when IBM’s “Watson” computer thoroughly trounced the best human “Jeopardy!” players on the planet. In the wake of these and myriad other examples of the growing superiority of the silicone chip-based servant over its carbon-based creator, there was much bloviating about the nature of sentience, logic, intelligence, reason, and whether computers would eventually overtake humans in all these heretofore exclusively and uniquely human categories.
To which I say (to myself, since no one listens to me): What a waste of time and apparently not-so-unique-after-all thought. Seriously. That’s the problem with academics; they’re too damn academic. Devious cunning and opposable thumbs got us where we are today and devious cunning and opposable thumbs will always insure that computers will never become our robot masters, so forget the Matrix.
But dogs, on the other hand, well, I can easily see them going all Planet of the Apes on us. If you ever stop for a second and think about it, I mean really think about it, I believe you’d come to the conclusion that there’s not a damn thing a dog can’t be trained to do, and do it better than pretty much anything else out there. Dogs can find people buried under tons of rubble, they can sniff out bombs and drugs, they can be trained to detect cancer, pick up shed antlers, help guide the blind, I mean, the list literally goes on forever. And although they do seem to lack our devious cunning and handy extra digit, dogs are our superiors in virtually every other way imaginable. We may be the “masters” in this eons-old relationship, but who’s really controlling whom here?
According to some recent research, dogs have evolved not so much to please us, but to groom us as their personal well-being tools.
From this story on scientificamerican.com:
By sharing an environment with humans, dogs left behind their ancestral environment and found a place in a new one. No longer would they have to hunt to eat; humans would come to provide for their care and feeding. It is probably no accident that the relationship between dogs and their owners mirrors the attachment relationship between parents and their children, behaviorally and physiologically. Indeed, humans who have strong bonds with their dogs have higher levels of oxytocin in their urine than those with weaker bonds.
_But it isn’t only the source of their food that changed as wolves became dogs; their entire social ecology changed. Instead of sharing social space primarily with other wolves, dogs came to treat humans as social partners. This is one of the critical differences between a domesticate and a wild animal that is simply habituated to the presence of humans. Domestication is a genetic process; habituation is an experiential one. Domestication alters nature, habituation is nurture.
Several years ago, scientists at Eotvos University in Budapest wanted to determine whether the social-cognitive differences among dogs and wolves was primarily genetic or experiential. To do this, they hand-raised a group of dog puppies and a group of wolf pups from birth, resulting in roughly equivalent experiences. Any differences between the two groups’ social cognitive skills, then, would be attributable to genetics._
What the researchers found was that despite being raised under identical circumstances, wolves and dogs exhibited completely different behaviors in terms of problem-solving. When given a task that was essentially impossible, dogs almost always looked to their humans for cues, or “help” if you will, while wolves did not.
In one simple task, a plate of food was presented to the wolf pups (at 9 weeks) or to the dog puppies (both at 5 weeks and at 9 weeks). However, the food was inaccessible to the animals; human help would be required to access it. The trick to getting the food was simple: all the animals had to do was make eye contact with the experimenter, and he or she would reward the dog with the food from the plate. Initially, all the animals attempted in vain to reach the food. However, by the second minute of testing, dogs began to look towards the humans.
This increased over time and by the fourth minute there was a statistical difference. Dogs were more likely to initiate eye contact with the human experimenter than the wolves were. This is no small feat; initiating eye contact with the experimenter requires that the animal refocus its attention from the food to the human. Not only did the wolf pups not spontaneously initiate eye contact with the human experimenter, but they also failed to learn that eye contact was the key to solving their problem.
Other experiments in the research projects had the same result. The rest of the story is a fascinating read and well worth the time for anyone interested in dogs. It reinforces the notion that dogs truly are distinct from wild canids. They aren’t just friendly wolves, but the unique genetic result of thousands of years of mutually beneficial domestication, if that’s what you want to call it. They’ve “trained” us as much as we’ve trained them, a fact the researchers point out
_It’s not that wolves are unintelligent; it’s quite the opposite, in fact. Wolves are cooperative hunters, skilled at negotiating within their own social networks. It’s just that even after being raised by humans, wolves simply do not see humans as potential social partners. The dogs, however, quite rapidly took a social approach to solving each problem they were given. In one sense, this is a remarkable example of tool use. Only in this case, the humans were the tools, and the dogs the tool-users.
So remember that, and be kind to your dogs. Your smart, deeply-intelligent, human-training, always-watching, always-adaptable dogs. Treat them well, or in a few more millennia of canine evolution it won’t be HAL 9000, Skynet or some malevolent toaster we have to worry about, it’ll be our canine masters.