Thinking Animals Lecture: The Highlights

June 12, 2012 by megan

Last Friday night I went to a presentation by the organization Thinking Animals that featured, among others, Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know and Evan MacLean of Duke University. Dr. Horowitz and Dr. MacLean both engage in scientific research about dogs, and their findings sometimes reinforce and sometimes challenge what we “know” to be true about our dogs. My favorite part of Dr. Horowitz’s talk is when she debunked the “guilty look” myth. Dr. Horowitz showed that there is no correlation between the guilty look and a bad behavior. There is a strong correlation between the guilty look and an owner who is scolding the dog in question. She showed us a clip of a dog being given a treat, then told by the owner not to eat the treat.  When the owner left the room, a meddling assistant jumped in and took the treat—she probably even ate it herself! When the owner came back, the assistant report that the dog had eaten the treat, and the dog got a scolding from the owner. The dog responded with the saddest, most guilty look. Dr. Horowitz told us that, if anything, not-guilty dogs looked even guiltier than those who actually had eaten the treat!

He actually included this picture in his Powerpoint.

Dr. MacLean urged the audience to consider different kinds of intelligence, rather than one monolithic category. By his estimation, dogs are Physically Foolish, but Socially Savvy. They aren’t good at solving puzzles or using tools, but they are masters at communicating to humans that they need help solving a problem.  In this way, dogs use humans as the ultimate multi-tool. We open doors, provide food, and fetch the ball from under the couch. Both Dr. Horowitz and Dr. MacLean emphasized how much dog’s ability to connect with human beings has determined its success as a species. Without humans, dogs would be up a creek, but because they have trained us to love them and care for their needs, there are millions and millions of dogs living all over the world.