Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Death Comes For The Cocker Spaniel

When it comes to defining intelligent life, one of the points people often make is that intelligent life is aware of its own mortality. That seems a little inadequate as definitions go, but it got me thinking: do dogs understand mortality?

Let’s start with some facts. There is plenty of evidence for dogs to consider that they are mortal. For example, they were puppies and they grew up, and throughout their lives they encounter older dogs and puppies. This is evidence of a life cycle of some sort. Can they put that together and, more importantly, do they realize that death waits at the end of the cycle? I don’t know. But they do seem to understand that they are to respect the old ones and humor the young ones, courtesies they normally do not extend to middle-age dogs. So maybe they realize there is some meaning in this cycle?

We had a dog once who became deeply depressed when his buddy died. But that doesn’t mean he put together that the other guy died, he may just have been reacting to him being gone.

They do display instincts that make them run from danger, but fear does not equate to knowledge of mortality. . . it could just be unknowing instinct or fear of harm? Yet, dogs aren’t without reasoning skills. They are much smarter than most people realize, and indeed, smarter than a lot of people. Researchers claim that average dogs can understand a vocabulary of about 165 works, with the Einsteins of the dog world understanding as many as 250 words. . . 113 more than your average rapper. Researchers also have shown that dogs can draw inferences based on that vocabulary. They also have basic computational skills and will notice errors in simple math, all of which puts them well ahead of rappers again. So they have some reasoning skills. . . the dogs, not the rappers.

Moreover, researchers have shown that dogs are actually capable of deceiving other dogs and humans to obtain treats. Now that is an interesting skill because it means that dogs are capable of thinking outside of themselves, i.e. they can contemplate the existence of others and assess how those others think and will react in the future. That would seem to imply a high degree of self-awareness, and much more than simple re-active instincts. It also shows an ability to think in the abstract, which is the kind of thinking you would need to realize that the life cycle ends in death.

So can dogs figure out that they are mortal? I honestly don’t know. I think it’s obvious that they aren’t reacting purely on instinct. Indeed, they appear to be self-aware and they have considerable reasoning abilities. They seem to appear to understand there is a life cycle, but do they understand that it applies to them? And do they grasp how it ends? Good question. Maybe we should just ask. . . are you mortal? One bark for yes, two for no.

What do you think?


Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - they are pack animals who obey tone as much as anything. On the other hand, Maggie early voted Republican, so who knows? ;=)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Good for her! LOL! We tried to register ours, but we live in a Repulican area, so the county wanted identification, and our dogs had a hard time producing social security numbers.

The question of dog intelligence is actually very interesting to me because almost everything you can say pro or con self-aware applies equally well to humans. In fact, once you get the point of trying to define intelligence, it all gets very tricky.

DUQ said...

I'm sensing a reference in the title, but I can't put my finger on it?

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

I understand that dogs are smarter than donkeys but not as smart as elephants. :-D

I think that dogs may at least understand mortality at the end of their lives, because they almost always do that "go off and die alone" thing. It's really kind of spooky that they just know to do this. Even if it is instinct, they seem to know that it's the end, you know?

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, Yep... "Death Comes For the Archbishop" -- by Willa Cather. We read it in high school.

AndrewPrice said...

Pitts, LOL! What isn't smarter than a donkey?!

I thought about that too -- it is kind of spooky that they seem to suddenly know that the end is near. I can't honestly say that people seem to have that kind of awareness at the end, at least not before the very, very end.

I think the questions of what constitutes life and what constitutes intelligence are incredibly fascinating. Whenever you start trying to define either life or intelligence, you quickly run into problems at all ends -- nothing seems to work as a definition. And what we seem to be left with over and over is "I know it when I see it," which is not very satisfying.

CrispyRice said...

LOL @ "I understand that dogs are smarter than donkeys but not as smart as elephants!"

I think dogs are way smarter than we give them credit for. And most of them are smart enough to know they have a good thing going and not to blow it, too. ;)

wahsatchmo said...

This is truly an interesting question, considering that most dog lovers will tell you that an old/sick/suffering dog will “let you know” when it doesn’t want to go on living. In my experience, this seems true, but it may just be my perception.

I do know that dogs can communicate very well with humans even in their own way; I had a dog that would “tattle” on her brother if he chewed something up while we were out. She’d make strange pitched whining and barking sound that was louder and more frantic than just merely happy. Once I figured it out, I was able to walk in the door and tell my wife, “Uh oh. The dog chewed something up.” She’d ask how I knew. My answer: “The other dog just told me.”

My wife thought I was a pet psychic, but this was probably also because I would roll my eyes back in my head and briefly speak in tongues while making these kind of claims.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I've seen many scientists describe dogs as the most successful animal species because they've managed to breed into vast numbers and reach every corner of the world, and they did it all by teaming up with mankind. They learned to understand us, befriend us, manipulate us and play us for chumps. And through that, they've managed to ride our coattails all over the world (and even into space). That's a pretty impressive feat if you ask me.

Even more interesting is the number of uses humans are finding for their skills. They are even experimenting now with tumor sniffing dogs as a medical tool -- which brings to mind the old joke about the Lab work and the Cat scan. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

wahsatchmo, That's funny!!

But you are right, they are very good at making themselves understood. Even dogs you've only just met are often very good at telling you exactly what they want. The relationship between humans and dogs is truly fascinating -- there have been some great shows about this on the Discovery Channel from time to time.

On the issue of perception, that's the real problem in this area, distinguishing between what dogs know and what we infer from their behavior. For example, are they really telling us they don't want to continue living or are we assuming that for them? I don't know and I don't know how we can tell. But I think solving riddles like that are what will eventually help us understand what true intelligence is, as compared to simple mimicry (which could be important in the computer world).

What makes me think that dogs are more self-aware than we realize is their ability to predict behavior (as shown by their ability to deceive). That indicates not only that they can understand others, but they can think ahead to the future and predict how others will respond. That's strong abstract reasoning ability.

And on that note, I've seen that in our current two. The one will trick the other into leaving when she thinks a treat is coming by barking at the back door, which get the other one running outside. Then she turns right around and tries to collect both treats. Clever little bugger!

Tam said...

Our dog got old and sick after my sisters and I flew from the nest. She walked or ran with us almost every day, and toward the end, my parents took her for one last walk. I think she couldn't muster the strength to go and stayed home and while my parents walked, they decided it was time to put her down. They came home and loved on her one last time. The next day, the fateful day, hen she went out to "do her business," she never came back. My parents called and called and searched and searched and never found her or any evidence of her. Whether it was instinct or understanding, she knew she was dying and went away to do it in her peaceful mountain home instead of on a veterinarian's table. I like to think she knew.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, That's a very touching story. I do believe that they know when the end is coming. I don't know how they know, but they do seem to know.

A friend of mine in law school even said that their dog actually prepared a place a couple days before it happened.

All of this makes me wonder what else they might know?

Ed said...

Excellent question! I have no answer for you. People obviously recognize a difference between dogs and something dumber like fish, but is that because we anthropomorphize dogs but not fish or is there really a difference?

Anonymous said...

Andrew: I'm sorry, but I'm very emotional. I get all teary-eyed at the sight of a poor little animal going to that great kennel in the sky. I actually lost a cocker spaniel because she got out and ran in front of a car.

And like Tam, the springer spaniel I grew up with managed to open the gate, which she had never done in her entire life, and left us. She had gotten to the point where she could no longer jump up on the foot of my bed where she slept at night. It was very sad.

On the other hand, my St. Bernard gave me both a big scare and a hearty laugh (once the shock was over). When my older daughter was just starting to crawl, we had her out on our front lawn while my wife was gardening and I was mowing. The postman came to our place, saw the cute little girl, and decided to walk over to her to say hi. Out of seeming nowhere, our Saint, Petunia, who carefully allowed the little one to ride on her back, came from the side yard and across the lawn at full speed, leaping over our daughter and tackling the postman. No barking or growling, no teeth, but she was not going to let him up until we said it was OK. Fortunately, after he composed himself, the postman had a good laugh with us. I guess they weren't as lawsuit happy back then.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, That is the question. Are we simply interpreting instinctive responses to see what we want to see? The researchers aren't because they're using sound methods to observe dog behavior. But they also haven't concluded that dogs are "conscious." I think it's an interesting question and I would love to know the answer because I think knowing the answer may help us understand our own place in the universe better.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, A St. Bernard named Petunia?! That's classic.

Most people get very close to their dogs and take the loss very hard. I think that is a great testament to the relationship between dogs and people -- they don't call them "man's best friend" for nothing.

Lucky for you that mailman had a sense of humor! In this day and age, I would think you would be hearing from his lawyer about five minutes later. Of course, your dog would probably have counter-sued for intentional infliction of emotional harm for breaking and entering into your yard! :-)

Ed said...

How do you mean help us understand our place in the universe better?

USArtguy said...

I've been too busy lately to visit the CR site much both at home and at work (plus they've installed some Big Brother software at the job to keep tabs on us). I've missed participating. So it's with an ironic sense of Karma, I suppose, that I should decide to visit today after a friend posted a link yesterday to this very nice music video called GoD and DoG. You may have already seen it, but it's worth watching again.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, We are all searching for the meaning of life - both religion and science and philosophy. The problem is that we don't even really understand the nature of life yet. We know it when we see it, but no one has been able to define it. If we can start defining it, even in non-humans, then maybe we will begin to understand the nature of our own lives more, e.g. are we spiritual creatures or are we just a collection of automatic routines programmed by our genes?

That's why I think questions of what is life and what is intelligence is so important: it can lead us to understanding the nature, and thereafter the meaning, of life.

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, Very cute!! I like that.

That reminds me of an old joke a friend of mine use to tell. He was dyslexic and he said: "do you know what keep dyslexics awake at night? We wonder, is there a dog!" :-)

In any event, welcome back and I hope you get the chance to comment more -- we have missed your insight!

CrisD said...

This is very interesting.

I have two part poodles (said to be "smart"): a five year old and a 16 year old. We have been worried about the old one - she is slow, tired and deaf.. but...still OK...and we don't look forward to finding her dead.

Anyway, to your point (or not) the vet told me to make sure that we let the younger one see and smell Ginger when she goes to "dog heaven." The vet says that they can recognize that their companion dog has died and somehow accept it. I stared blankley but I certainly don't want to do the WRONG thing!!!

Personally, I think the younger one, Mickey, will be very sad and lonely no matter what I do.

Both our dogs are registered...Republican.

AndrewPrice said...

CrisD, I'm glad to hear they're both registered Republicans! I knew we had a great audience! :-)

I think they'll probably miss her whether they know the cause or not. Dogs love company and clearly miss people (other dogs) when they are gone -- that's part of their charm I think, that they like being with others so much. We have one right now who is so friends that she would probably snuggle up to a burglar if the burglar sat down -- she loves everyone!

That's interesting what your vet said and it would seem to indicate that they do understand death as compared to simply not being there anymore. Fascinating.

Ed said...

Andrew, Good explanation, I see your point. What is the prevailing thinking on how to define life?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, There is no accepted definition. There are a whole group of possible explanations, but nothing that's agreed upon or complete. Some of it depends on self-awareness, some of it depends on consuming other organism, some of it is purely biomechanical. But none of it works.

DUQ said...

LOL! Ok, I don't know that book, but maybe I saw the movie?

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, I honestly don't think it's a great book, so you're not wasting your time. And I doubt it was ever made into a movie.

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