Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Give the Dogs Their Due

Where did I leave my bone?
The other morning as I ate my morning gruel and read the Daily Gazette, Dover, who had been lying on my feet, suddenly popped up with a purpose clearly in mind. He loped over to his toy basket, rummaged around deep under the chicken, the wombat, the camel with bells on, the sea skate and the dragon, found his bone, and settled back down at my feet, and gnawed away with gusto.

Dover had had a memory and an idea! He saw a clear path to bringing his idea to fruition, went to some trouble to carry it out, and enjoyed the fruits of his desire. I find that pretty impressive.

Another surprising demonstration of a dog's mind at work is "intentional thought", a very hot and controversial topic in animal behavior circles. If there is something Dover wants and thinks is his due (a morsel on the counter, a tennis ball under the sofa), he will stare intently at it, then stare pleadingly at me, and then look back again, repeating his question until he gets what he needs or I change the subject. Our previous dogs did this too, and it wasn't until I was teaching about chimps and the question of whether they self-medicate using local flora that I, an organic chemist, stumbled into the controversy about whether animals participate in "intentional" thought processes. In this case, I know my dogs are indeed telling me their heart's desire. I am convinced that Dover's behavior reflects a conversation, and have referred to this homey scenario in conversation and class.

So now, in addition, I have evidence that Dover, at least once in his life, planned! Hot and rabid skeptics who say otherwise, and equally hot and rabid partisans will yawn. But I saw it unfold and there is no doubt about it in my mind - Dover had a sequence of related memories and thoughts. Yikes. What next?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dogs in Hats, Ticks, and Tee-Shirts

Several years ago, when a local bookstore was going out of business, I looked at the shelves to see what I might like to buy during the final sale days. There were three shelves of guide books, and I hoped to buy several "Golden Guides to [Insects, Mammals, Fish, Reptiles, Spiders, etc.]" for budding scientists among family and friends. Alas, I waited too long, and when I finally got back to the store the shelves were empty except for one lone, rather slim book: "A Field Guide to Ticks." After a moment of distress that I had failed Shopping 101, I picked up the book, paid for it at the register, and took it home. While i haven't consulted it too often, I do like to display it prominently on the living room bookshelf. In fact, I have brought several additional copies and given them as Christmas presents to friends with particularly tick-infested gardens and woods.

About fifteen years ago I drew a tee shirt for our Women n Science Program. There was a dog with a hat as the center piece, and with a nod to the multitude of biologists among us, the dog peers into a microscope at some unformed mass on the stage. The shirts went like the proverbial hot cakes, and gradually mine became thin and ragged and positively indecent to wear.

Time passed. On the occasion of a friend's retirement two years ago, I decided to reprint the shirts. The design, dog and hat stayed intact, but the second edition shirt places a tick on the microscope stage. What better research endeavor for a young dog scientist than to study ticks - and maybe provide some insight into how to thwart their efforts to creep out the world.

After the new shirts were printed and publicly presented to the retiring and slightly dazed colleague, I heard this story of what happened to one of our graduates during his time in graduate school out in LA.

One sunny morning, while riding the bus to his lab and planning his experiments for the day, his thoughts were interrupted when another rider started to ream him out because she objected to a woman in science being represented by a dog. And, a dog with a hat! After a few minutes of being the object of this public spectacle, he fled the bus. He mentioned this incident to his faculty mentor back home, who, the story goes, knew about "the problem," and that was why he had decided years previously to give his shirt away to a one of his students.

I love the shirt. Most people do. But now I am over-sensitized about the picture, and I honestly do not know what to do with eighteen new, lovely, women in science tee shirts, complete with dog, hat, microscope, and anatomically correct tick (using, of course, my trusty field guide to provide an up close and personal model of a tick).