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?

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