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42Evolution

Q&A

Is my dog conscious?

A Beagle (Image: Fantagu/Wikimedia Commons)

A Beagle (Image: Fantagu/Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, of course

With floppy ears, grinning chops and tail sweeping the Meissen figurine off the table, who can possibly doubt that man’s best friend isn’t conscious?  Rover isn’t a pet, he is part of the family!  Dogs have emotional states (who’s in the dog house?), not least guilt at misdoings and jealousy as their owner gives quite unwarranted attention to a cat, for goodness sake.  Then they turn the tables and exude empathy in times of crisis.  Exhausted by another day of rolling in things unspeakable and chasing rabbits, Rover hits the sack and chases their phantom equivalents.  And boy are they smart, ever attentive to human cues, be they pointing or by gaze, off they trot at our bidding.

And what about dog heroes, winners of Dickin medal, or war-time Bamsa who used to take the bus from the docks into Dundee to round up his Norwegian sailors?  Then there are the lexical geniuses: paw forward with Rico and Chaser.  Rico got off to a flying start, getting more than 200 words under his collar (so to speak), needing to hear a new word but once to identify the new toy (in the trade this is known as fast mapping).  Then there is Chaser.  Admittedly subject to a tough training regime, this Border collie now knows more than a thousand words and he doesn’t get muddled.  And if that wasn’t enough, see Chaser crack syntax where a request (= verb) and the two objects (respectively prepositional and direct) are interchanged.  So, for example, “Ball-Take-Frisbee” now becomes “Frisbee-Take-Ball”.  Chaser comes up trumps with a high success rate.

Pretty impressive, so let’s up the ante and instead of words use visual cues (aka icons) in the form of replicas and photographs.  Alright, the dogs, including Rico, are pretty wobbly with the photographs, but they do well on the replicas.  Doesn’t this suggest our canine friends stand on the threshold of language and symbolic understanding?  So when you are told: “That’s no way to speak to my dog!”, maybe the owner has a point.  “Down Rover!  Good boy!!”

No, don’t be ridiculous
The Dickin Medal is awarded to animals who show extreme bravery, and it is commonly referred to as the Victoria Cross for animals. This image shows Rob, a Border Collie, being awarded the Dickin Medal in 1945 (Image: Imperial War Museum archive via Wikimedia Commons)

The Dickin Medal is awarded to animals who show extreme bravery, and it is commonly referred to as the Victoria Cross for animals. This image shows Rob, a Border Collie, being awarded the Dickin Medal in 1945 (Image: Im... moreperial War Museum archive via Wikimedia Commons)

We may love our dogs dearly, but let’s not fool ourselves they are conscious. They can’t do sums and before going for their walk don’t routinely look in the hall mirror to make sure the collar is straight.  Dogs “understand” humans only in the sense of obeying orders: gestures are imperatives and to the canine mind convey no information.  They haven’t the foggiest idea of either what we are thinking about and what might be our motives.  Unlike us they can never step out of their paws; their world is devoid of either intentions or mental representations.  So what about their obvious capacity for empathy?  Not so fast, dogs are supremely alert to human cues but they don’t cuddle up thinking “Gosh, this is truly dreadful”.

Even so, aren’t they on the very verge of language?  Step forward another lexical dog, one Bailey.  Like many Yorkshire terriers, he is a smart little chap, knowing the names of 120 toys and not thrown by a different accent.  He too shows “fast-mapping”, but it only works on a one-to-one basis.  Faced with two-choice mapping, that is a new toy is added to the pile and the dog then given the new name, did Bailey rush to find the right toy?  No, he was hopeless.  Yes, dogs can recognize words (as cues) and even their order, but their brains are free of grammar.  So how then do we explain dramatic rescues and other instances of doggy boldness?  Dogs are terrific at being trained to deal with emergencies, but when the owner collapses with a cardiac arrest (just pretending) or is pinned beneath a bookcase yelling for help (brilliant piece of acting) does the dog dash off to summon help?  I am afraid not.  Sorry, Rover hasn’t a clue.  They really enjoy our company, but are forever blind to our motives.

It all depends on the question

So should we regard dogs as Darwinian robots? Not at all, but as examples of animal consciousness they are the worst example imaginable.  Ever since they wandered into the Palaeolithic firelight some 30,000 years ago, they have been subject to intense selection for domestication and social skills.  Über-darwinists might regard them as social parasites, but not only are the paths of dog and human domestication convergent, but dogs make us more human.  Dogs are intensely alert to human gestures and socially hyper-attentive, but these are extreme specializations, for our benefit.  Accordingly, if the cue is non-social or they are offered an “irrelevant” means-end test (such as the famous string-pulling experiment), then the dog is at sea.

Dogs, like many animals, are intelligent and clever, even though the “duffers” pass largely unremarked.  But unlike us they are not self-aware; their worlds are free of meanings.  In this respect we are unique, which from an evolutionary perspective is actually very odd.  Can dogs, therefore, make no contribution to our understanding of consciousness?  Yes they can, but only if we are willing to think outside the box.  Consider Hector, a terrier.  His owner, Willem Mante, is a ship’s officer.  Hector often goes AWOL, but this time he misses the boat as it leaves Vancouver for Japan.  Next day Hector seizes the initiative, boards another Yokohama-bound vessel and once across the Pacific is reunited with officer Mante, in appropriately dramatic circumstances.

What’s going on?  How does Hector “know” where to go?  How does he “sense” his owner?  No point here in troubling the closed minds of North Oxford.  We can all agree that consciousness is embodied, but if you think consciousness stops there then think again.  The worlds of mathematics and music are no accidents, but are resonances of orthogonal and non-material realities.  The implications are shattering.  It is high time to stop acting as a grumpy deracinated ape, stuck in a perpetual existentialist crisis.  Evolution is only important because that is the way in which the Universe became self-aware.  And our journey has only just begun, with dogs as companions, mind you.

Text copyright © 2015 Simon Conway Morris. All rights reserved.

Further reading
Dodson, K. (1959) Hector, the stowaway dog.  Angus and Robertson.
Griebel, U. and Oller, D.K. (2012) Vocabulary learning in a Yorkshire terrier: slow mapping of spoken words. PLoS ONE 7, e30182.
Hare, B. and Tomasello, M. (2005) Human-like social skills in dogs. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9, 439-444.
Hare, B. et al. (2002)  The domestication of social cognition in dogs. Science 298, 1634-1636.
Horowitz, A. (2009) Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural Processes 81, 447-452.
Kaminski, J. and Nitzschner, M. (2013) Do dogs get the point?  A review of dog-human communication ability. Learning and Motivation 44, 294-302.
Kaminski, J. et al. (2004)  Word learning in a domestic dog: Evidence for “fast mapping”. Science 304, 1682-1683.
Kaminski, J. et al. (2009)  Domestic dogs comprehend human communication with iconic signs. Developmental Science 12, 831-837 (and Addendum, p. 838).
Kaminski, J. et al. (2011)  Dogs, Canis familiaris, communicate with humans to request but not to inform. Animal Behaviour 82, 651-658.
Macpherson, K. and Roberts, W.A. (2006) Do dogs (Canis familiaris) seek help in an emergency? Journal of Comparative Psychology 120, 113-119.
Osthaus, B. et al. (2005)  Dogs (Canis familiaris) fail to show understanding of means ends connections in a string pulling task. Animal Cognition 8, 37-47.
Pilley, J. W. (2013) Border collie comprehends sentences containing a prepositional object, verb, and direct object. Learning and Motivation 44, 229-240.
Ramos, D. and Ades, C. (2012) Two-item sentence comprehension by a dog (Canis familiaris). PLoS ONE 7, e29689.
Templemann, S. et al. (2014)  Do domestic dogs learn words based on humans referential behaviour? PLoS ONE 9, e91014.
Thalmann, O. et al. (2013)  Complete mitochondrial genomes of ancient canids suggest a European origin of domestic dogs. Science 342, 871-874.

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