The dog world is literally atwitter over the SPARCS event being held in Phoenix this weekend. Dr. Hecht from “Dog Spies” a co-sponsor of the conference, lists on her website the following questions that will be discussed.
Do dogs engage in ‘mental time travel’? Are they aware of their own past; can they imagine their future?
- Do dogs learn from members of their own species, and even us?
- Could dogs survive without assistance from people?
- Do companion dogs have better welfare than free-living dogs?
- What causes sudden fads for purebred dogs, and do the most popular breeds have the best welfare?
- Are there really personality differences between “dog people” and “cat people?”
- What are the major gaps in our knowledge of dog behavior— gaps which do not exist in a number of other species?
- Is stress bad? Can it ever be useful? Can it be minimized in certain dog populations, like those at the shelter?
One major gap in our understanding of dogs apparently, and surprisingly to me, is why do dogs roll in you-know-what. See Patricia McConnell’s blog for an up to date synthesis for where science stands on this issue.
I say surprising because it seems odd that science is invested in figuring out mental time travel in dogs before understanding why dogs roll in you-know-what. The proverbial trying-to-fly-before-crawl kind of thing. It must be that it's considered an amusing and trifling oddity. I'm presuming the question was not addressed in the presentations, or if it was, that the answers weren't any more conclusive than the discussion on Dr. McConnell's site. So I have to wonder how can something definitive or even intelligently speculative be said about the possibility of mental time travel in the face of such a basic gap in understanding what dogs do everyday. The funding is directed toward high level cognitive function. (But also increasingly, fortunately---and due to the influence of physics I believe--for the rules driven logic of collective behavior. Simon Gadbois made this point to me in an exchange in a Facebook dog group so I’m happy to stand amended.) Nonetheless I can say that the significance to dogs rolling in “disgusting” things speaks directly to the core of how a dog’s mind works. And I suggest that if one wants to plumb the rules that drive the system, one would do well to concentrate on why dogs roll in you-know-what.