Fence Duty and Canine Cognition
Some maintain that science requires numbers, data must be quantified so that experimental results can be firmly established and replicated. Sometimes a small spike in a graph, a mere statistical blip on a graph indicates the presence of a new finding. I read recently that the Fermilab particle accelerator found a statistical anomaly, an unexpected small spike but statistically meaningful so as to reveal a fundamental, unifying particle. So, if common sense and the billions of horse hours of trained jumpers grazing contentedly behind pasture fences aren’t enough to stir one to question the prevailing paradigm, I can offer the following numbers in regards to something interesting I observed about canine cognition. This particular “experiment” involved hundreds of thousands of dogs and ran for 47 years. In fact I believe that the experiment is ongoing today and so involves tens of millions of dogs. (Meanwhile scientific facilities such as the Harvard Canine Cognition Lab have been running experiments involving several hundred dogs and for only a few years.) Furthermore, this particular research project has returned a statistical printout of 100% certainty rather than a slight skew in the numbers.
Growing up in the dog boarding business and then owning a kennel of my own for 16 years, perhaps the kennel chore I dreaded the most was that every four or five years we had to paint all the fences and gates with heavy, thick “Rustoleum” enamel paint. My father’s kennel could hold over 100 dogs in side –by-side fifty foot indoor/outdoor runs. There were also some large pens for air drying dogs that had been bathed, and then outdoor holding kennels for dogs during peak periods. Altogether there was probably ½ mile of six foot wire panels and gates, and as a boy I became intimately familiar with absolutely every inch of it. It took an entire summer to complete the painting project and despite experimenting with every kind of glove then available, I basically walked around as a gray mottled boy for the duration of summer “vacation.”
However before I could start painting, I first had to mend any wire mesh that might have been torn apart by dogs that from time to time grabbed, gnashed, gnarled and strained against the gate with all their might either because they were trying to escape or because they were fence fighting with a neighbor. Once rewoven, a fresh coat of paint made the panel or gate look good as new. So equipped with two pairs of pliers and a roll of heavy gage wire, when I found a rent section, I wound a strand into the loose ends of the affected area and then bracing my two feet against the gate, pulled it piano wire tight, looping the strand back and forth until the entire section was snug to the pipe of the gate frame. Interestingly, I never had to patch one of the fence panels that separated the dogs in their runs, even though this is where the dogs were most likely to bite the wire out of the frustration of not being able to bite the dog next to them. Apparently this kind of displaced aggression paled against a fearful dog stressed out of its mind hell bent on chewing his way to freedom, and such a dog always focused on a gate. So unless a fence panel was rusted out from years of exposure to the elements, urine and caustic cleaning solvents, the only area that ever needed patching was the gates and we'll return to the significance of this later when we consider an additional twist to the results of this “experiment.”
My father’s kennel was built in the fifties, and then I bought an even older kennel of my own in 1982, which had been built in the forties. The age of these kennels is important because the gates and panels were made of especially heavy wire, like the kind of metal Model T fords were once built of, rather than the flimsy kennel fencing one finds at the local hardware or feed store and which a stressed out dog can chew through like butter. Also, they were of a wide chain link weave so that a dog was able to get a full mouth grip and turn its entire body into a bucking bronco as it heaved-ho with a wad of wire in its jaws. Nevertheless no one dog during the course of a stay could chew through the heavy wire. It would take a succession of dogs over a multi-year period to finally buckle the wire through the sheer metal fatigue of the mesh having been flexed innumerable times by many scores of dogs until the proverbial straw on the camel’s back moment occurred and produced a lucky winner. (Thus, one can think of a commercial boarding kennel as a linear particle accelerator in that dogs are put under intense stimulation/stress which accelerates their nervous systems and thereby generates intense radiations of behavior: the fence panels and gates in the experiment being akin to photographic plates recording the impacts of where the dogs focus their energy. Over a long enough period of time, these tens of thousands of collisions add up to reveal a distinct picture.)
As a basis for quantification, I’m using an occupancy rate standard for a commercial boarding kennel of 50%, which is somewhat higher than the national average of 40% yet still conservative given that boarding kennels in Fairfield County, Connecticut as were my kennel and my father’s kennel had an occupancy rate well above the industry standard (around 70 to 80%). So using these two kennels as a population base, from the years 1950 to 1997 we’re dealing with 100 dogs a day X 24 hours = 2400 dog hours X 365 days = 876,000 dog hours per year X 47 years equaling 40,586,000 total dog hours. Now were the results of this experiment to be correlated to other commercial boarding kennels across the country that are similarly configured as indoor/outdoor long center-aisle buildings of old fashioned wire construction, we would be dealing with a dog/hour baseline that would increase into the multi-billions.
In the early nineties when I was preparing my own kennel to be sold, I suddenly came to the recognition that I had been unknowingly conducting this experiment. The occasion for this understanding arrived when it finally came time to replace all the wire mesh panels and gates because even the heavy thick pipes of the gates were beginning to crumble from corrosion and could no longer support new repairs. And as I perused the Mason Fence Company catalogue I was delighted to find that they offered not only the heaviest of wire gage just like the old fashioned kind, but for an extra cost it could be woven to a ¼ inch weave so that a dog couldn’t even get a tooth hold in the first place. No more repair work, no dogs chewing their mouths up. So in order to place my order I had to take stock of the overall condition of all the kennel panels and gates to see how much it was all going to cost and during the course of this inventory I made a remarkable discovery that had escaped my notice until that moment. While the gates and panels were in bad shape, and especially the gate latches from countless openings and closings, it turned out that not one of the outdoor gates over all those years had ever been repaired. All the original factory clamping that secured the wire to the piping was still intact and none of the gates bore any trace of any reworking. And yet at the same time absolutely every indoor gate bore the crude handiwork of wire weaving by way of hand-held pliers. So the obvious question became, why was it that none of the outdoor kennels bore the telltale scars from canine escape artists? Granted the dogs spent less time outdoors than indoors, so we could cut the canine hours by 2/3 which leaves us with 13,528,666 hours of dogs having access to outdoor gates, which is still a very conservative figure because often dogs seeking to escape would chew through the drop gate separating indoor from outdoor, or pry it open and squeeze under on their way to a then to a night outdoors, which is why every wooden drop gate was invariably replaced every several years. (I preferred the wood over metal because they kept the cold out better and couldn’t be bent in or out by a determined dog, only chewed through, and if accidentally dropped on a dog’s head wasn’t heavy or sharp enough to cause injury.) But again in the morning we never found such a dog with bloody lip or tongue from having gnawed on an outside gate. Yet during the course of feeding and cleaning all the dogs saw kennel workers coming and going through the outdoor gates as well as through the indoor gates, and the escape artists were just as quick to make a bull rush move for the open gate be it indoors or outdoors as a worker came and went so there was a clear “recognition” that freedom lay just beyond the threshold of an outdoor gate just as much as it did beyond an indoor gate. So why the discrepancy--Why didn’t dogs divide their escape efforts equally on the outdoor as well as the indoor gates especially given that they were less supervised when they were outside than when indoors?
The answer is simple. The way my fathers’ and my kennel were set up, and this is probably true of most if not all kennels with wide weave chain link fencing so that this experiment has in fact been replicated thousands of times across the country, is that there is a long center aisle with indoor kennels lining both sides. At the front of the kennel building is an admitting office, grooming area and kitchen and so the shortest distance to bring a dog to his kennel on the way in, or out of his kennel for release, or to and from the grooming area, and which required going through the fewest internal doors and containment gates, and could be done quietly when all the dogs were locked outside since the pull cords were situated inside, was from the dog’s indoor kennel to the center aisle. Therefore the vast majority of dogs were taken in and out of their kennels by way of the center aisle and so they only experienced going through their indoor kennel gates (which is also why they would chew up a drop gate). In other words, while they might try to escape through an outdoor gate as the worker came in or out, they never FELT the experience of GOING OUT through the outdoor gates and so in the millions of millions of dog hours spent occupying the kennels, virtually no dog ever chewed on an outdoor gate, and certainly no series of dogs which is what was required to exert the necessary metal fatigue to actually tear the heavy gage wire.
I interpret the statistics of this experiment to mean that if a dog can’t feel what it feels like to go through a kennel gate, then when it is closed, it can’t FEEL that it represents access to anything beyond. This interpretation is the only interpretation consistent with Pavlov’s discovery that dogs salivate when they hear the ring of a bell paired to the taste of mean. The bell becomes part of a feeling. But knowing how to go through an obstacle without being able to feel that obstacle as part of a wave function, is an intellectual feat of cognition and not part of the emotional continuum by which dogs learn. If a dog can’t feel it then a dog can’t “know” it. This simple premise of canine cognition allows us to plumb the canine and animal mind to a depth that will never be approached by a neuroscience-based behavioral experiment. Only this understanding can render a model for the animal mind, which can then supply the framework for understanding the neuro-chemistry and neuro-anatomy that modern research is so brilliant at uncovering, but currently lacks the context for understanding.