Do Dogs Believe In Magic?

In the video below a magician plays a sleight of hand on a number of dogs.


Stanley Coren in his Psychology Today blog argues that the dog’s reaction corresponds to a child’s cognitive understanding of “object permanence.” To support this view he cites a dog still retaining interest in a ball that rolls out of sight, or a lab in a duck blind that “marks” where a number of birds fell and then unerringly retrieves them later.


When I saw this article I first thought of embodied cognition. An experiment with babies, just old enough to hold their heads up, were treated to a puppet show designed to draw them into the action, and then a shelf seemingly holding up a cup that had been invisibly affixed to the background was pulled away. When the cup didn’t fall the infants exhibited the stereotypical “startle response” indicating that they felt it should have fallen. It turns out that infants are born with an intuitive or embodied recognition of objects of mass and the action of gravity, and they have this well before they’ve developed the capacity of object permanence or have had any chance to acquire a mastery of moving their bodies and manipulating objects in defiance of gravity. Animals I also believe are born with an embodied cognition in regards to gravity, mass and the laws of motion, in fact I believe this is the basis of emotion itself. Unlike Coren however, I don’t see in this video anything that indicates that dogs have a rational understanding of object permanence. Dogs have a high emotional capacity as do humans, but they differ in kind, not by degree, when it comes to thinking, which I narrowly define as the capacity to compare one moment, or one perspective, to another.

An energy interpretation of how these dogs respond to the trick reveals the unconscious process of “objectification,” the manner by which the form-of-a-thing comes into mind.

The animal mind doesn’t link aspects or features of things together at random or by reason (as in learning reinforcement theory, “if I do this then I will get that”), there is a distinct process by which the various elements in the dog’s perception of its surroundings become tied together and composed into an object. And this video of a magic man playing tricks on dogs actually reveals the objectification in fine detail.

Objectification is fundamental, it’s how internal energies find external expression that is coherent. It’s how resistance to getting to an essence becomes an object so that an emotional response can formulate into a coherent physical action. I like to borrow the term “object oriented programming” from the computer world (I once trained a dog for one of the creators of Object/Programming) because the objects due to the way they attain form in the animal mind are a programming language and data base in and of themselves. Object oriented programming is very adaptive because it imparts a coherent intelligence without the unnecessary and evolutionarily costly hardware of a huge cognitive mental horsepower. In this process there are objects-of-attraction, objects-of-resistance, and, objects-of-attention plus objects-of-connection, both of these serving as “midpoints.” All of these objects carry an emotional charge that can only be satisfied by two possible avenues, and until they are fulfilled, i.e. come-to-a-point, then they never leave the animal mind.

Objects have a form, the form contains an essence, I call the germ within the husk a positive value + or in my jargon, a “preyful aspect.” The form containing the essence offers resistance, it insulates the essence from direct access, such as the shell or husk of a simple object such as bone with marrow or a seed containing its germ. (+) And somewhere in this form, or shell, is an opening, a flaw, a crack or crease in the case of simple objects of attraction, and this constitutes the negative value – which emotionally represents the point of access. So we could say any object has a positive and a negative charge——- >   –  (+). The negative value in the case of a complex object-of-resistance physically manifests as the eyes. It doesn’t matter whether this latter class of object is in fact alive or not, the dog doesn’t figure things out that way by classifying somethings as animate versus those things that are inanimate. It will always look for a negative when it encounters resistance in the pursuit of a positive.

Emotional displacement ———>   – (+)      The negative grants access to the positive.

So every state of attraction must have a concrete object as a focal point and this is why a dog is driven to objectify rather than classify and categorize as do humans. All a dog cares about are objects-of-attraction, objects-of-resistance, objects-of-connection, dogs don’t care about ideas or ideals because emotion, the basis of animal consciousness, can’t move without a material, concrete, tangible object as a focal point.

So when the nervous system of a dog is excited by something and its nerve synapses start firing, for example the magician enticing the dog with a treat in his hand, three primordial things happen. (1) The dog’s emotional system is knocked out of equilibrium by being stimulated by the treat and becoming excited, emotional displacement of the hunger/balance body mind continuum. (2) The dog experiences this stimulation, this displacement from the pre-existing state of emotional equilibrium, as a force of acceleration, just as if an external force has acted on him, the strength of which is the degree of arousal and the intensity of the collapse of the pre-existing frame of mind. (3) Feeling acted upon, the dog then feels compelled to generate a counteracting force (which is why most of the dogs in the video are driven to connect with the magician) and to do so it must ascertain the source of the force. It attributes the force of attraction to the source of the disturbance which at first blush seems so straightforward as to not warrant consideration.

Emotional equilibrium is restored if (a) the dog can ingest something with enough emotional grounding value to absorb the full force of acceleration, or (b) the source of the force can be neutralized. These two mandates, the urge to ingest–a form of emotional grounding–and the need to return to equilibrium—are internal energies that must combine into a coherent expression of behavior which as I’ve mention above requires the process of objectification so that ideally both mandates can intersect in the perception of an object whose essence can be extracted from its form. This is an innate and very deep process, it is not cognitive, it’s based on the mechanics of locomotion and digestion wherein an object of attraction is integrated into the body/mind’s hunger, movement and equilibrium systems. Overcoming resistance in order to ingest something brings the force to-a-point of termination and also emotionally grounds the body/mind which thus returns the individual to a feeling of flow, which now represents a new computation of equilibrium. (I need also point out that because this invokes the processes by which an animal moves its body through time and space, it’s the only theory of behavior fully consistent with the Constructal law as articulated by Adrian Bejan in “Design In Nature” as well as the other theories of cognition that physicists are beginning to uncover in the ways that animals evolve over time and solve problems in the immediate moment.)

If the object can’t be ingested due to resistance, the next level of impulse is to accelerate the object-of-resistance. And if it can’t be accelerated, then the state of attraction is at risk of collapsing which would trigger the fear of falling, a fear that is  proportional to the original strength of attraction. Let’s look again at the video in such a light.

Note that the dogs ARE NOT looking for the object that’s missing. Rather, the two distinct and separate aspects of objectification have been parsed apart by the magician’s sleight of hand. The dogs alternate between smelling for an emotional ground + the preyful aspect, the essence, the scent of the food; but most of all they’re looking for the source of the force that displaced them since without an immediate prospect for ingesting, the balance problem is now at the forefront of their emotional conundrum and they’re still invested with that destabilizing force. This needs to be dumped pronto if there’s no object that can absorb it. This is why the dogs are looking at the tricksters’ eyes, the camera lens, the eyes of the person holding the camera, other observers apparently in the audience, they’re looking for a  “new negative;” and if these don’t pan out and recapitulate an object that contains an essence which can absorb the force they’re stuck with, they turn in an altogether different direction to the other side of the room.

For many of the dogs the magician becomes the source of force and then physical memories come into play and some get playful with the man (kids with a grasp of object permanence don’t do that) whereas a few become abjectly afraid (kids also don’t do that). The most interesting dog is the one who goes into a state of avoidance, he’s reliving the physical memory of a correction. (Note that in an Austrian experiment, this same response was mistakenly attributed to a dog’s innate sense of fairness. So we can see how unknowingly a researched can misread the behavior of dogs to suit any intellectually expedient purpose. This deep internal inconsistency is always the problem with personality theories that are thought-centric.) For the frightened dog the instincts from the collapse of the attraction are telling them that a predator is nearby (kids don’t do that either). Kids don’t do either of these because their intellect can dampen the force of acceleration through a mental comprehension of object permanence and then release the pressure of a denied force through a sense of humor or wonderment because they can still hold the object-in-toto in a mental memory based on abstract extrapolation. The force of acceleration in a kid evolves into a state of awe for the magician.

While magic tricks are fun to play on dogs, there’s no room in our study of dogs for magical thinking. We can’t just abracadabra insert thoughts into a dog’s head when we run into a mystery. The dogs in this video are not entertaining an “idea” of object permanence. The real magic here is the process of objectification, objects being willed into existence through the force of desire. Object oriented programming is how emotion integrates the individual into the network. Too bad we always miss it. But at least we should know that dogs no matter how intelligent their capacity for adaptation, still believe in magic.

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Published April 24, 2014 by Kevin Behan
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2 responses to “Do Dogs Believe In Magic?”

  1. Peter Mantu says:

    Hi there, I would like to leave a comment here and mention that this is by far one of most interesting topics I have ever come across with regards to dogs and the way they “think”. It’s really important for people to understand how the dog’s mind works in relation to ours. We have the power to learn how dogs think by winning their mind in a sense of understanding.

    Do dogs believe in magic? It’s a slightly difficult one to answer…I’d like to think a little bit more on it and come back with a more valuable answer. Thanks for your great post and keep up the good work you are doing here.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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