What Can We Know For Sure?

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.

Published February 28, 2013 by Kevin Behan
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7 responses to “What Can We Know For Sure?”

  1. Brad Higgins says:

    Hello Kevin,

    I get this argument often. Those that choose not to understand my method will say I cannot know what a dog thinks. My answer is that I may not entirely understand what he is thinking, but I have a pretty good idea of how he thinks. I can predict with certainty, how he will react as I manipulate his road to success.

    Brad Higgins
    Higgins Gundogs

  2. kbehan says:

    I find it hard to imagine that someone could not understand how a dog learns through your method. To put it in my terms, I would add that you know what a dog is going to do because you can feel how he’s feeling. At any rate, it’s a real pleasure to watch a dog master the work through his own innate resources and without any loss of drive when things get more complex and difficult.

  3. Good dog training is just the understanding, and (fair) manipulation of contingencies, right?

    May Oprah come callin’ and may you someday get $6000 a head to teach people to walk a dozen dogs at a time! (email me for this link…I never cease to be amazed!)

    All the best

  4. Very timely, considering Brian Hare’s new book is out.

    And then there’s this: Canine Intelligence Tests Reveal How Dogs Think

  5. Faith says:

    I agree with what Brad says. I would almost go so far as to say, it’s not that important to know WHAT the dog is thinking, and more important to know HOW he thinks, or as Kevin said, how the dog is feeling. When training, my feeling is that if you understand how the dog thinks, you can set the dog up for success.

    I do not mean to hijack this thread, but I really appreciated something that Brad Higgins said in the video documenting Ithaca’s training. I have hunting dogs myself, and I do all the training. We currently have 3 Drahthaars in our family. Over the course of 10 years, I have been utterly dismayed at the pitfalls of traditional training methods, especially when it comes to steadiness. In Ithaca’s video, Brad Higgins says that during steadiness training, there is not a lot of retrieving involved because retrieving equates to chasing and therefore would be unfair to the dog. This shows exactly how important it is to know how a dog thinks, and this sets the dog up for success. It is also going to completely change my own approach to training steadiness in the future.

    Loving all of the information here. I have a lot to learn when it comes to the concepts of constructal law, but it makes a lot of sense so far.

  6. kbehan says:

    Appreciate your input, especially in regards to how you are going to adjust your hunting training according to the Higgins’ method. I don’t remember too much of how my father worked with bird dogs, but he was known for getting a dog to work close to the gun. Too bad he didn’t know about the “magic brush pile.” What’s most striking to me in the Higgins’ method is starting the young dog by letting it chase the birds and then it goes on to learn that this is not an efficient use of its energy. He learns to give it up on his own, a lesson then amplified through later training experiences. (This is where on the most basic physiological level, the Constructal law as well as the laws of motion and other principles of Thermodynamics kicks in. In short, there’s an emotional cost to being inefficient, and the laws of nature embodied in the dog’s makeup allow it to ascertain not only how to become more efficient, but how to respond coherently so as to reap “new energy.”) The idea of steadying a dog through a natural process is fascinating. When I work with an aggressive dog I allow it to learn through contrived circumstances two related principles, the-less-I-do-the-safer-I-am—–the-less-I-do-the-more-I-get.

  7. Faith says:

    I actually use some of the same principles in my own training, especially letting the pups chase birds. It’s how I’ve started all my dogs. I’ve just never removed the retrieve from the steadiness process, but it makes complete sense during training. Higgins also mentioned about sharing the reward (the bird) and how in one clip even though Ithaca got the reward, walked over to the gunner to share the reward. This also makes a lot of sense to me and I can see how it’s easy to develop a natural retrieve when training this way.

    The concept of the “magic brush pile” is fantastic. What I love most is that, in my mind, it reinforces the fact that dog and human are a team and work together. So going back to your point about there being an emotional cost to being inefficient, the dog learning that the human (provided you are a good shot!) is a valuable team member is critical in the process.

    I won’t call myself an outcast (though I’m probably close!), but there are many folks in the hunting dog world that think I’m crazy not to force fetch my dogs, not to use an e-collar for training, not to use a whoa post to teach steadiness, and for basically not following in traditional training methods. I don’t buy into the dominance paradigm, and I feel like Sisyphus and the boulder trying to get people to see a different way! Some days I have the discussion, other days I just don’t have the energy. The only “proof” I have that these methods work is that my dogs pass their necessary ability tests and they are not only great hunting dogs, they are wonderful family companions. I’m really glad I have found your blog. Thanks for writing!

    (I’m sure you’ve written about it somewhere, but I’d love to hear more about your work with aggressive dogs with “the-less-I-do-the-safer-I-am—–the-less-I-do-the-more-I-get”. I think I get the concept, however, I’d be interested in hearing examples of how you’ve done this. Thanks!)

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