The bond between dogs and humans

Such a beautiful and mutually-important relationship.

I didn’t plan to write more about this subject thinking that my last two posts, Woof at the Door and Prof. Pat Shipman, more than covered the theme; indeed much more.

But then a flurry of other articles conspired to pass my desk.

In no particular order there was an article on the Big Think website, Do Dogs Speak Human?  As the article opened,

What’s the Big Idea?

Perhaps the better question is, do humans speak dog? Either way, the debate over whether language is unique to humans, or a faculty also possessed by wild and domestic animals from dogs to apes to dolphins, is an interesting one. The answer depends on exactly how we define “language,” and who’s doing the talking, says David Bellos, the Booker prize-winning translator.

The article includes this three-minute video,

and concludes,

Broadly, a language is a mode of expression. “The argument that only human language is language and that animal communication systems, however sophisticated they are — and some of them are quite sophisticated — are not languages because they consist of discrete signals is a circular argument,” he argues. “It’s a self-fulfilling thing. And I think we should be a little bit more interested in the complexity and the variability of animal communication systems and less rigid about this distinction between what is a language and what is not a language.”

For now, we’re happy with this:

The June 30th edition of The Economist had an article entitled, Can dogs really show empathy towards humans? (You may have to register (free) to view this.)  That report ends, as follows,

As they report in Animal Cognition, “person-oriented behaviour” did sometimes take place when either the stranger or the owner hummed, but it was more than twice as likely to occur if someone was crying. This indicated that dogs were differentiating between odd behaviour and crying. And of the 15 dogs in the experiment that showed person-oriented responses when the stranger cried, all of them directed their attention towards the stranger rather than their owner.

These discoveries suggest that dogs do have the ability to express empathetic concern. But although the results are clear enough, Dr Custance argues that more work needs to be done to be sure that such behaviour is true empathy. It is possible, she points out, that the dogs were drawing on previous experiences in which they were rewarded for approaching distressed human companions. Dog-owners, however, are unlikely to need any more convincing.

It was then an easy follow-up to that Animal Cognition article which is available online here; here’s the abstract,

Empathy covers a range of phenomena from cognitive empathy involving metarepresentation to emotional contagion stemming from automatically triggered reflexes.

An experimental protocol first used with human infants was adapted to investigate empathy in domestic dogs. Dogs oriented toward their owner or a stranger more often when the person was pretending to cry than when they were talking or humming. Observers, unaware of experimental hypotheses and the condition under which dogs were responding, more often categorized dogs’ approaches as submissive as opposed to alert, playful or calm during the crying condition. When the stranger pretended to cry, rather than approaching their usual source of comfort, their owner, dogs sniffed, nuzzled and licked the stranger instead.

The dogs’ pattern of response was behaviorally consistent with an expression of empathic concern, but is most parsimoniously interpreted as emotional contagion coupled with a previous learning history in which they have been rewarded for approaching distressed human companions.

It doesn’t get closer than this.

6 thoughts on “The bond between dogs and humans

  1. Clearly dogs, cows, chimps, let alone parrots, communicate. One can only communicate through a language.

    The argument that animals’ languages would be “discrete”, thus not really langages, is neither here, nor there, as all and any human language, including computer programming and mathematics, are also discrete.

    BTW my latest post on thinking is somewhat related, and I have more coming…


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