It’s generally considered reasonable to say that one can never know for sure what’s going on inside the mind of a dog since 1) dogs have very different sensory apparatus than do we, and 2) dogs can’t speak and personally tell us what’s on their mind. Of course this is kind of revealing of an intellectual bias in and of itself for it implies that who else but a verbal being could most reliably know about what’s on their mind. The gift of speech may allow for a report, but it turns out that speech isn’t even close to being 100% reliable by any means since many people (and all of us at some point) don’t know what’s really going on deep inside our mind so that when one speaks of its doings they can be greatly mistaken, otherwise why would we turn to psychiatrists or need to talk things through with interested parties?
Incongruently, those who say we-can-never-know-for-sure, at the same time say things like, dogs never lie, they live in the moment—but then—–dogs act out of the urge to dominate or to control resources, that they have a limited capacity to deceive, this latter set of statements really meaning that what’s going on inside the dog’s mind is exactly what’s going on inside the human’s mind. What happened to not being able to know for sure? If the dog lives in the moment, why does he desire either dominance or the control over a resource?
Some assert that saying we-can-never-know-for-sure isn’t a problem because they will resolve to remain open minded so that if at the end of the investigation it turns out the evidence doesn’t fit their speculations they are then prepared to reassess. But if every do over is then again infused with a thought, an intention or rationale as the starting point, no matter how many replays or caveats that one-can-never-know-for-sure, any investigation that begins with a human intention will lead to the foregone conclusion that dogs think just like we do, they think about maintaining territory, possessions, dominance or control over access to resources. No matter how much the subsequent interpretations are tweaked, every replay will merely reprise the original error. Thirty years ago behaviorists were trying to retrain owners that dogs aren’t exhibiting guilt and contrition when their owners shame them for soiling the house. They still say they believe this, but now behavioral research claims that dogs have an inherent sense of inequity; and that they can apprehend the human’s point of view in regards to whether lights are on or off, these are self-contradicting premises coexisting peacefully within the same paradigm. The thinking is that the more this kind of research is conducted, the more we will come to know. And yet we’re obviously moving in the wrong direction if self-annihilating principles can be assimilated into the same paradigm. Therefore saying we-can-never-know-for-sure but let’s just plow ahead searching for cognition isn’t a reasonable or a conservative approach.
The only reasonable and conservative approach is to begin with what we CAN know for sure. While we can never know how the world LOOKS to a bat, or a fish, because we can’t sense a fraction of what they pick up from their surroundings, we do know for sure that dogs, and even bats are affected by gravity, just as we are. We do know that the laws of thermodynamics and motion apply to all animals, just as these laws apply to us. We know that searing heat feels as painful to a dog as it does to a human, that dogs gasp for air as desperately as do we. That a dog falling off a cliff would feel exactly what I would be feeling were I to fall off a cliff. How then can this catalogue of definite correlates that are reasonable and conservative to assume, be broadened into the more nebulous regions of conscious experience?
We now do know that animals experience emotion, it is a part of their makeup just as it is for human beings, and emotion most likely comprises far more of an animal’s subjective perception, interpretation and experience of reality than it does for us. So if it is true that emotion is a universal common denominator within every animal’s makeup, and if one were able to parse apart emotion from instinct, and feelings from thoughts, emotional experience from sensory input and all processes of mental self-reflection which by definition contain the conception of Time which is foreign to the immediacy of emotion, in other words if someone could look at what a dog is doing and interpret it completely in terms of the immediate-moment without ascribing any intention, thoughts or rationales to anything that’s being physically expressed by the actions it’s performing, then it is logical and conservative to believe that one can say something definitive about what’s going on within the dog’s mind. Not in toto, but rather on the most basic level of emotion, which is the only thing we can say is universal to every animal that otherwise varies by genes, physiological requirements, anatomy, environmental niche, neurological development and range of senses. We should begin with emotion and carry it out to its fullest extent before we ever venture an opinion as to where rational cognition plays a role. It is not reasonable or conservative to leave emotion in abeyance and yet make a claim in regards to canine intellectual intelligence, as Dr. Coren does.
So while I cannot say what the taste of carrion tastes like for a dog, or what a dog is specifically seeing when he’s scanning the horizon, nevertheless I can say definitely that a dog eating carrion is feeling good, and that a dog chasing a deer is feeling good, and at the same time it turns out that I too know what a good feeling feels like. And when I feel good, it’s all the same. If I get a gold star as a child for my homework, or if at the extreme end of receiving acclaim were I to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for increasing humanity’s understanding of the animal mind so that all begin to live in harmony with nature for the betterment of humanity and even Oprah comes a callin’, while the intellectual experience and my thoughts might vary widely from the two events, nonetheless these are the exact same good feeling. I know where I feel the feeling in my body and I know how the feeling varies in intensity, depth and timbre as things go on around me and the feeling is inflected by nuance. Such things are knowable.
So if we start at the beginning with what can be said for sure, it turns out to be a far more conservative and reasonable approach than proceeding on the basis of saying we-can-never-know-for-sure. We can never know everything for sure, that of course is true. But we can know something for sure, we can know the rock bottom, emotional-common-denominator for sure.