Science Doesn’t Have All the Answers
Description, not a Prescription
A ten-week old puppy, paper thin, with patchy fur and yellowing teeth. I so wanted to “get it right” for him. And in a way that was my first mistake. The night before he arrived, I flicked through puppy books, mentally checking off all the things that would count against him: his line, his early learning, his rearing environment. I called to mind an inventory of things I’d likely need to fix about someone I hadn’t even met. On our first night, and on many subsequent, I slept near him, not with the primary intention of providing comfort but instead to prevent him fretting. I initiated our relationship on efforts to guard against, to combat…I focussed on what he could become rather than being attentive to who he was. And in doing so, I imagined a divide between us for control of his future.
The amount of information available to us about our dogs is evidence of our increased desire to enhance their experiences among us, but it can also be an impediment. Greater awareness of our species difference should mean that we’re better equipped to improve their lives. But the deeper we delve the more conflicted we may feel, pre-empting “problem behaviours” that haven’t yet manifested as we turn the pages of books on precisely those things.
We lean on science in our efforts to bridge the gap between our two species, as though it provides the answers to how things should be rather than describing how things are understood. We allow it to steer our course, accepting its conclusions as absolute, and forcing them to carry the weight of our relationships with our dogs and of their overall wellbeing. Attachment, learning experiences, life stages – we view them all through paradigms, theories and hypotheses. And in so doing, we distance ourselves from the dogs in front of us.
Within any other relationship, our guidance comes mainly from that relationship itself: from mutual attentiveness, communication, dynamic connection. These can be described and explained by science, but scientific understanding is not the main vehicle that progresses them. Among our own species, our individuality and that of those around us guides us in these connections, along with our mutual empathy and our own experiences. And while species difference might complicate relationships, a focus on the individual and the intention to undertake a journey of mutual discovery can smooth our path.
Yet with our dogs, we tend to accept the “authority” of those outside of the relationship as though what they reveal is unchanging and universally applicable. We look towards human constructs such as “stubborn,” “biddable,” “friendly” to explain our dogs to ourselves, instead of towards their expertise about what is to be canine among our species, and we thereby construct the idea of “dog” in human terms. We accord a moral weight to the term “science-based” to mask the fact that what we teach them is too often what advantages us rather than them: sitting to greet, walking at our pace on lead, demonstrating focus on us with eye contact. We harness scientific claims to reduce the diversity of the entire species into a template of “dog,” and we ignore the distinctiveness, the individuality, the wonderful variation that makes each one with whom we share our lives a delightful surprise.
That first night wouldn’t be my last lying awake for him: worries that he hadn’t yet visited a city centre or that the pandemic had prevented visitors interrupted my rest frequently. I’d studied too much but knew too little. While I mostly found reassurance in my growing knowledge of him, the “experts” and their cautions haunted me. What if…?
When we’re responsible for the upbringing of a member of another species in a world not designed for them, a clearly demarcated route through the forest of interspecies living seems appealing. Yet our lives with dogs tend to be focussed less on the skills that will benefit them in this environment, and more on adapting the ways they react to it. We use food to block or mask responses in the name of “socialisation” instead of helping them learn to assess their world at their own pace. Our focus on outcome over skill reduces the complexity of the individual to the behaviours that they display, and in this, emboldened by a justification that we are operating in accordance with “science,” we pathologize their difference from us, seek to eradicate or soften their most canine traits, strive to reshape them in our image.
The first time I brought him out of the house, his entire demeanour told me “no.” Four to six weeks, I’d learned, was all I had to load him up with new experiences as though he were an operating system and not an individual with his own opinions about this new world he was discovering. But I didn’t merely want to transform that “no” into an “if we must.” I wanted from him an enthusiastic yes to his world. That would take him as long as it took, and whatever limits on the size of that world were necessary to keep him saying yes. That was the first time I got it right.
Our dependence on paradigms that homogenise an entire species is seen in how we reductively view our dogs’ learning as constrained to certain developmental windows, or in how we describe behavioural or emotional responses as syndromes: separation anxiety, resource guarding, impulse control problems, and so on. This, in turn, stigmatises these responses, and prescribes concoctions of treatment for what is often merely a gap in learning. The phrase “canine aggression,” for instance, describes a range of behaviours with vastly different causes and functions, in which social communication such as growling, barking, snapping, lunging, etc., is often seen as a symptom to be remedied. We frequently disregard that such behaviour may be contextually appropriate, and yet we increasingly lean towards the euphemistic term “reactive,” recognising that term “aggressive” doesn’t allow for nuance or understanding. While we insist that some traits inherent in our dogs are undesirable, then, at the same time we reveal our discomfort with our own claims.
He was five months old when the gulf between my perception of him and the learning I inherited became a chasm. A body covering the stationery I’d just dropped. A snarl as my hand unthinkingly reached down to collect. Surprise, and then understanding: “and why shouldn’t he?” I withdrew my hand and watched him explore his find.
The study of behaviour and mental processes is certainly worthwhile, but to be led by this in relating to our dogs puts us in danger of losing sight of who they truly are, and to instead to seek to mould them, even ostensibly for the betterment of the relationship. That we use science to absolve ourselves from the responsibility of their learning isn’t the fault of the discipline itself, but rather the way in which the dog industry has diluted it in efforts to popularise it in soundbites, labels, shorthand, and generalisations. We wield science as an authority that seeks to put itself (and therefore us) beyond question:
- We cite sources received second-hand to bolster our claims (how many references to the Yerkes-Dodson law in dog books point back to the experiments on Japanese dancing mice?)
- We make reductive and oversimplified references to neurotransmitters and emotional circuits to lend weight to our assertions (dopamine and oxytocin, or the SEEKING system, for instance, are far more complex than the advertising slogans of the dog business would lead us to believe)
- We build current knowledge on studies from decades past (Scott and Fuller’s purpose-bred dogs in highly controlled environments from almost three-quarters of a century ago remain the foundation of much of our modern thinking about canine development).
It is, of course, a positive that we turn to scientific enquiry to enhance our knowledge of the canine worldview rather than defaulting to superstition and untested assumptions. However, this needs to be underpinned by a thorough understanding of the scientific method, critical reading and critical thinking, and the ability to synthesise research. We must engage with caution and humility so that our claims don’t become reductive, muddled by conflicting approaches, or reduced to mere jargon and terminology. In short, those of us who aren’t scientists must handle science with care; and whether we’re scientists or not, those of us who are partners-in-learning of dogs ought to be guided by those dogs and their learning, and to celebrate this for the rich and complex education that it is, rather than to seek reassurance and ease in a human-centred, one-size-fits-all approach.
I think back to my childhood. I’m not even a year old, barely able to walk. A toddler hand reaching towards the toy I’m carrying. I scowl. “Mine!” I hug the bear closer to me. “That’s her favourite toy,” my mother explains to my playmate as she offers a substitute. And now I whisper to him: “Yours.” We’d start working towards him feeling better in similar situations tomorrow: helping him learn that rewards outweigh threats to them. But in that moment there’s no danger to him, and so his prize is his. I cherish his “no” with as much ferocity as he cherishes this object.
Challenging Our Own Limitations
There’s a tendency to accept received knowledge as though it’s immutable and unbiased. Yet, we can’t escape the fact that our mode of perceiving the world is limited by species. Consider, for example, how studies of canine intelligence compare a dog’s mind to our own: we are only convinced that they possess a theory of mind when it can be demonstrated as a theory of human mind, disregarding the fact that a predator species can only be successful if that species can predict the behaviour of its prey. The studies of canine cognition often bypass the complex language of canine play with its reciprocity, turn-taking, signals and metasignals, and instead test intelligence through dogs’ responses to our pointing gestures and directional gazes. The game of measuring canine cognition is one that we set dogs up to lose: they can never be enough like us to be deemed to matter as much as we do.
Similarly, our understanding of how dogs perceive the world is extrapolated from studies conducted on other species in radically different experimental contexts. We make claims about how dogs learn based on how pigeons and rats acquire food under constraint in laboratories, and we thereby reduce the complexity of learning to mere input-output procedures. We view canine attachment to humans through the lens of fifty-year-old experiments conducted on human babies among members of the same species. On one hand, we’re invested in believing that our dogs can learn by a process similar to computer coding; on the other, we seek to prove by brain scans that they love us rather than the rewards that we predict, so determined are we to place ourselves at the centre of their worlds.
“Easily frustrated,” I’d say to myself. I made it my mission to “fix it”; “fix him.” It was easy to do; I didn’t have to examine my behaviour that he deemed unfair, his expectations that I failed to deliver. The fault was with him: genetics, early learning, and so on. Not me. Nothing to do with me.
Discussion of the canine mind, then, tends to be heavily anthropocentric. We privilege our own worldview and value those traits that are either of practical use to us or that flatter us in some way. We’re so convinced that we hold the key to understanding the world that we try to impose this on our dogs, teaching them to “speak” using buttons rather than attuning ourselves to the complexity of their natural forms of communication. The corollary is that instead of helping them to developing skills that benefit them, we seek to extinguish traits that are undesirable to us, either because they’re a potential interference to our lives with them, or because they threaten our status in the relationship. By pathologizing what we dislike, what is inconvenient to us, we reinforce the structures of power that insist on our dominance over dogs.
Our mode of relating to dogs primarily through science can therefore bolster these hierarchies, as we leverage it for permission to curb all that is most canine about our dogs, and to remodel them in human terms lest the species difference become too complex to navigate. In this, we release ourselves from the responsibility of negotiation and we continue to exert control, however benevolently. Thus, our superficial investment in science can become coercive at its heart, deployed to change emotions, change responses, change the behaviour, and ultimately change the dog. Such a method of wielding the power to alter the other only operates from us to them, and yet we too often put the onus on our dogs for its success.
Moving in a New Direction
By being guided by the relationship, the connection, the individual, we are opening ourselves up to learning in turn. Through this process, we come to understand our dogs’ point of view, their perspective on the world. We learn about who they are, and they learn about us. We negotiate our world together rather than imposing ours on them. We build their learning in ways that are appropriate to them, to the skills they would benefit from acquiring, and to the partnership that we share with them.
To focus on their learning as individuals, and equally on what we can learn from them, is to begin a dialogue with them that is rooted in empathy. We ask of them and their world how to provide them with the skills that will help to guide them through life. We design a curriculum around them that’s specific to and appropriate for them. In this, we acknowledge their individuality, the uniqueness of our partnership, and the complexity of the individuals involved in it. We honour, too, the space where those individuals meet. To move away from a pathologizing approach to our dogs and towards one grounded in helping them develop skills to be the best version of themselves is to focus on the nurturing of the partnership and to agree to navigate the world together.
Will you travel with us on our Voyage of Discovery?
He thundered through a world that had to rapidly adapt to him, insisting that I look beyond the “book learning” to find him: not THE dog about whom I was reading; not even A dog; but thankfully his irrepressible self. He knew who he was and defied everything I assumed; refused everything I planned to offer him. And once I let go of that, I was ready to truly learn. And he was eager – oh so eager – to teach.
And he was eager – oh so eager – to teach