Dogs and play, and the lessons for us humans.

Part One of a stunningly interesting essay from Professor Marc Bekoff.

As a newbie yet-to-be published author I am technically at the stage of having a completed draft that Jeannie and a close friend are proof-reading. Then after corrections, it is going to be released to some ‘beta’ readers who will give me some early feedback. (Too scary to even think of just now!)

OK, with that admission out of the way, let me move on to my ‘draft’ chapter on play; in Part Four of the book. In researching what is known about the way that dogs play and what lessons there are for us humans, I came across an essay by Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.  Marc is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His essay had been published in May on the website of Psychology Today. It was incredibly interesting and full of material for the book!

Within a few minutes of me sending Professor Bekoff an email requesting permission to include quotations in my ‘draft’ chapter, he had responded in the affirmative. I had also sought his permission to publish the essay here on Learning from Dogs. Again, a very quick, positive reply.

Thus with Marc Bekoff’s generous permission, here is his essay in full. (I’ve taken the decision to split this long essay into two parts.)

Finally, Professor Bekoff includes numerous ‘html’ links within his essay to other materials. I’ve cheated by saving quite some time adding those links but have underlined the linked phrase in question, apart from the very early chapters that do have ‘html’ links. Please go to the site of the original essay to explore further those links.

Marc Bekoff and friend.
Marc Bekoff and friend.

ooOOoo

Butts and Noses: Secrets and Lessons from Dog Parks (Part One)

Dog parks are gold mines of information about the behavior of dogs and humans

Post published by Marc Bekoff Ph.D. on May 16, 2015 in Animal Emotions

I love going to dog parks. So, too, do dogs and their people. Dog parks are a fascinating recent and growing cultural phenomenon. Indeed, I go rather often to what I call my field sites, for that’s what they are, to study play behavior and other aspects of dog behavior including urination and marking patterns, greeting patterns, social interactions including how and why dogs enter, become part of, and leave short-term and long-term groups, and social relationships. I also study human-dog interactions and when I study how humans and dogs interact I also learn a lot about the humans. For example, I often hear how happy people are that their dogs are free to run here and there or free to be dogs when they’re at the dog park. Often, they say this while they’re constantly calling them back to them even when the dog is simply sniffing here or there or looking for a friend. They also call them to break up play when they think it’s gotten out of hand. You call this free?

Two works to which I often go when thinking about social dynamics at dog parks are Matthew Gilbert’s book titled Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park and Sonoma State University’s Patrick Jackson‘s essay called “Situated Activities in a Dog Park: Identity and Conflict in Human-Animal Space.” Linda Case writes about Dr. Jackson’s study and she is not a fan of dog parks because she feels they’re not safe and because “Dog park people frequently behave badly by not being responsible dog owners and by being inconsiderate and uncaring towards other people and their dogs.” We really need empirical studies on the safety issue. After having spent countless hours at dog parks I’ve never entertained drawing this conclusion, but there aren’t any detailed data on this topic of which I’m aware. However, on occasion, but hardly regularly, I’ve marveled at just how inconsiderate a very few people can be. But, as part of the gossip network among the other people, I often hear that a given person behaves like this even in non-dog park situations. On a few ocassions I’ve had a rather inconsiderate person ask me why their dog has bad manners and rather than get involved I call attention to some interesting dog-dog interactions.

Most people realize that “dogs are in” and countless scientific and popular essays (see also New Directions in Canine Behavior, Julie Hecht’s “Dog Spies,” and essays written for Psychology Today by writers including Mark Derr, Stanley Coren, Jessica Pierce, and yours truly) and books have been published in the past decade or so about these fascinating mammals. The bottom line is that a plethora of detailed data — and the database is rapidly increasing — clearly show that dogs are thinking, clever, and feeling sentient beings, and viewing them as sort of robotic machines is incredibly misleading and academically corrupt (please see this essay). This does not mean that they are “doggy Einsteins,” however, ample data from numerous different research groups around the world clearly show that dogs are rather complex and incredibly interesting mammals who deserve a good deal of further study. Perhaps even René Descartes would consider changing his views on nonhuman animals (animals) as unfeeling machines given the enormous amount of empirical evidence on sentience in animals.

Why do dogs do this and that? Canine confidential

“Why do dogs do this and that?” The purpose of this short essay, that can be conceived as a field guide to the extremely interesting and largely unknown world of the fascinating dogs with whom we share our lives, is to provide some lessons in dog behavior from observations and questions arising from visits to various dog parks, especially around Boulder, Colorado where I live. I see myself as “a naturalist in a dog park” and aim to show here, via a series of questions, what we know and don’t know about many different aspects of dog behavior. Dogs are often called social catalysts – icebreakers or lubricants — for social interactions with other dogs and they often open the door for pretty frank and wide-ranging conversations among familiar and unfamiliar humans. It always amazes me how dogs free up humans to talk about things they might be more reluctant to share in other venues including what they really think about their human “BFF’s — best friends forever” — and the infamous “3 p’s,” namely, pee, poop, and puke. Often when I get home and look at my notes I view them as “canine confidential.” So, what follows is a sampler of many “why” questions, including why dogs hump, why they sniff butts, genitals, and ears, why they play, and why they organize themselves the ways they do. There are also many “what” questions such as “What do they know?”, “What are they thinking?”, and “What are they feeling?” in different contexts. The list of questions is endless and I’m sure those that follow can easily mutate in many, many more.

People who are lucky enough to share their world with a dog often think they know it all. And, while they do know a good deal about what their canine buddy is thinking and feeling and what they want and need, there really are large gaps in the scientific database. As I mentioned above, there are numerous anecdotes about why dogs do this or that, and, taken together, they form their own pool of data. However, while the claim that “the plural of anecdote is data” applies in some cases, many mysteries still loom in what we actually know about the world of dogs.

Furthermore, often there is no single “right” answer to a question — even some of the most commonly asked queries — and that’s just fine. Dogs compose a highly variable group of mammals — I often say “the dog” doesn’t really exist — so it’s not surprising that just when we think we have a solid handle on what they’re thinking and feeling and why they do what they’re doing an exception or three arises. Surely, the early experience of individual dogs influences their later behavior. So, while we know a lot, people are often amazed by how little we know and that hard and fast answers can’t be given to some common questions.

Visiting dog parks can be wonderful educational experiences. Visits, some lasting hours on end each and every day, can be myth breakers and icebreakers, and also provide information about why dogs are doing this or that. People are always asking questions about why their dog is doing something and really want to know what we know. They also freely offer advice to other people about why their dog is doing something and how they can treat various problems such as shyness, aggressiveness, and why dogs ignore what their human is asking them to do. And, as I wrote above, dogs also are icebreakers – “social catalysts” the academics call them — and get people to talk with one another and to talk about things.

The questions below range from interests about basic dog behavior such as why do dogs stick their noses where they do, and why they play, bark, pee, eat turds, and roll on their back, to more lofty questions about whether dogs have a theory of mind and whether they know what they look like and if they know who they are. A good number of questions deal with dogs’ butts and noses, hence the title of this brief essay (motivated, of course, by the famous rock group, Guns N’ Roses). Butts and noses — including other “private parts” – figure into a number of the questions below. We all know dogs put their noses in places where we couldn’t imagine there would be anything of interest, and also place their active snouts, often on their first introduction, to other dogs and humans, in places that make us rather uneasy. We don’t greet friends or strangers by immediately licking their mouth or with a genital sniff or slurp. There also are many general questions that don’t center on anatomical features that figure largely in the world of the dog. I’ll answer each question briefly with what we know from various types of research, with some stories where they’re available, and note where we really need more information. It’s entirely possible that I have missed a given study (or studies) and I apologize for the oversights and look forward to hearing from readers.

While we know a lot about dogs, there are holes in the database, so the future is chock full of exciting research. Readers will discover that what we often take to be the gospel about dog behavior frequently isn’t all that well supported by published empirical research or even detailed observations. While good stories are interesting and can serve to stimulate more “controlled” research, in and of themselves they don’t constitute “data” as do detailed and more focused studies (I’ll suggest below that studies in dog parks may be more “ecologically relevant” than studies in laboratories and help to settle on-going debates among different research groups). In some ways, then, this essay is sort of a myth-buster and a fun way not only to learn about dogs but also to stimulate further research about dogs and dogs and humans. So, here we go.

(See the concluding part tomorrow.)

One thought on “Dogs and play, and the lessons for us humans.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s