Life

THE THINKING DOG’S MAN

Stanley Coren, expert on canine cogitation, enters the mind of Bernadette

BARBARA WICKENS November 29 2004
Life

THE THINKING DOG’S MAN

Stanley Coren, expert on canine cogitation, enters the mind of Bernadette

BARBARA WICKENS November 29 2004

THE THINKING DOG’S MAN

Life

BARBARA WICKENS

Stanley Coren, expert on canine cogitation, enters the mind of Bernadette

THE SUTTON PLACE HOTEL in downtown Toronto is like many swanky big city hotels. A liveried doorman ushers visitors into a quietly luxurious lobby, where plush wool carpets soften the gleaming marble floors, and giant floral bouquets provide splashes of colour to the muted tones. My companion, however, doesn’t seem impressed by any of this. In fact, Bernadette has her nose flat to the floor. Again. Still, I’ve gotten used to this sort of shameless behaviour—she is a dog, after all, not to mention part beagle, the superstars of the sniffing world.

We’re here to meet Vancouver psychologist and bestselling author Stanley Coren,

whose latest book is How Dogs Think (Simon & Schuster,

$37.50). The canine’s mental capabilities have intrigued many through the ages, from Plato, who described the dog as a “lover of learning,” to Pavlov, whose focus on stimulus and response in animals has led some to deny dogs much in the IQ department. As someone who has been around dogs much of her life, I’ve never been satisfied by the latter view. Like many a dog owner, I’ve looked into my pet’s eyes and had the sense there was an intelligent being staring back. Then again, that’s usually right before she does something

incomprehensible to my limited human way of thinking, like trying to make a snack out of a rabbit flattened on the road. So, after reading Coren’s book on the workings of doggie grey matter, I’m eager to see if he can explain what’s going on (or not) in this particular mutt’s mind.

Of course, there’s no way to tell Bernadette any of this. Like many dogs, she knows a few words such as “treat” and “walk”— according to Coren, the average dog has a vocabulary of about 20 words—but concepts like “we’re about to conduct an interview” are beyond meaningless to her. Instead, she tries to figure out what’s going on in the way that comes most naturally to her species—via her nose. Marble flooring may be odourless to me, but to her, with a schnozz that’s anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times more sensitive than mine, it’s the canine equivalent of the hotel’s guest register. If a dog with no sense of decorum had passed through the lobby recently, traces of its urine could have told Bernadette that animal’s age, sex and even its emotional state.

But no scent in particular demands her attention, so we turn into a room off the lobby. As I greet one of the people waiting for us, I drop the leash—and Bernadette heads straight for Coren. Why him? Was she drawn by the enticing aroma of goodies hidden in his jacket pocket, or was it subtler and more complex than that? Had she glimpsed his hand reaching for the pocket and interpreted the gesture as “there are treats in here?”

It’s entirely plausible. Dog vision is in some ways poorer than human. They see fewer details and fewer, less rich colours than

we do. They also have some difficulty separating layers of objects, such as a pen resting on a book that we can easily see. I suspect this explains why, before a quick sniff reveals her mistake, my garbage-loving hound pounces on dried leaves and anything else that resembles the bread crusts my neighbours routinely dump in the park. On the other hand, the construction of their eyeball means dogs are superior at detecting motion, a useful trait for their hunting forebears.

Of course, seeing and comprehending are not the same. What has made dog man’s best friend is the dog’s unique ability to read humans’ non-verbal signals. They’re so good at it, in fact, that it can seem as if they have ESP: if I even think it’s time to go for a walk, Bernadette is at the door. But Coren says the most likely explanation is that I tipped my hand. “You may not even be aware that you looked at, say, the leash,” he says, “but your dog sure is.”

Researchers measured this cue-reading ability in a series of find-the-treat experiments (there were controls, so odour wasn’t a factor). Dogs excelled: they figured out nearly every time which of two containers held a hidden morsel merely by following the experimenter’s gaze. The dogs did not require any training. Chimpanzees and three-year-old children were able to learn the task eventually. Wolves fared no better than the chimps. Nine-week old puppies, however, were as good as older dogs, proving the skill is innate and not learned.

For Coren, the implications are clear: “The dog is not just a tame wolf.” Archaeological evidence shows that dogs and humans have lived together for 14,000 years— one site suggests 20,000 years—and that’s given us plenty of time to create an entirely new species, one superbly adapted and attuned to our needs.

I mention that Bernadette seems the very embodiment of this adaptability. She came to live with me two years ago; her previous owner, who’d had her for six years before giving her up because her fiancé was allergic to dogs, believed Bernadette was about one when she got her from the local pound. Despite her uncertain age and the fact that Em at least her third owner, Bernadette has slid into my life as if we’d always been together. We’ve developed our own little rituals, like her sitting down quietly the moment we walk in the door so that I can easily unhook

the leash from her collar. I recall having to ask her to sit only once or twice.

Coren is not surprised. He too has recently had an older dog join the household he shares with his wife, Joan, a cat and two other dogs. And nine-year-old Bam Bam has even had to learn a new name. “I just couldn’t call a male dog ‘Banshee,’ which is an Irish female spirit,” he explains.

So does this give the lie to the old saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? After all, Coren has mentioned that the average dog is as smart as the average twoyear-old, and that’s an age for humans when a lot of learning happens. The short answer, he replies, is yes—but it’s not easy. “The problem is not so much the learning as the unlearning,” Coren notes. In tests where dogs were trained to pick a large object instead of a small one to get a reward, old dogs learned just as quickly as young ones. But after changing the rules so the small object produced the reward, older dogs took two to three times longer than the younger ones to figure out the change.

I can see the real world implications of this—and it doesn’t look good for my hopes

LIKE MANY a dog

lover, I’ve looked into my pet’s eyes and sensed there was an intelligent being staring back

of ever teaching Bernadette not to pounce on every bit of scrap food we encounter on our walks. A lifetime of experience has taught her that many of these morsels are really tasty—no matter how much the human on the other end of the leash is retching.

Still, Coren says I have a number of options besides a concerted effort—which would likely take as long as she has left on this planet—at retraining her. Punishment, however, is not one of them; not only is it ineffective, he says, but it creates a negative emotional climate. If the behaviour is really making me crazy, I can give her away (scratch that one). Or I can mechanically restrain her (keeping her on the leash most of the time, though if she’s really determined she’s nearly strong enough to pull me off my feet). Or I can learn to live with it. That somehow seems fair. After all, she’s had to learn to live with me. CTI