Friday, December 26, 2008

Why does your dog pretend to like you?

I read this article in the Atlantic. I hope Dad and Mom don't read it because it has sniffed out us dogs in a rather scientific manner as genetic responders (for lack of a better term). Here are two quick quotes:

If some advertiser or political consultant could figure out just what it is in human psychology that makes us willing to believe that dogs are loyal, trustworthy, selfless, loving, courageous, noble, and obedient, he could retire to his own island in the Caribbean in about a week with what he would make peddling that secret. Dogs belong to that select group of con artists at the very top of the profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it. Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all. They lie on top of the air-conditioning vent in the summer; they curl up by the fireplace in the winter; they commit outrages against our property too varied and unspeakable to name. They decide when we may go to bed at night and when we must rise in the morning, where we may go on vacation and for how long, whom we may invite over to dinner, and how we should decorate our living rooms. They steal the very bread from our plates (I'm thinking here of a collie I used to have whose specialty actually was toast). If we had roommates who behaved like this, we'd be calling a lawyer, or the police.

WHAT is so exploitable about human society? And how do dogs manage to exploit it? We are, as the animal behaviorist John S. Kennedy called us, "compulsive" anthropomorphizers -- always on the lookout for behaviors that mimic, even superficially, human social phenomena such as loyalty, betrayal, reciprocity. These are useful things to look out for when one is a group-dwelling animal whose survival is threatened less by ravenous wild beasts than by back-stabbing fellow group dwellers. Our cognitive ability to ascribe motives to others is a large part of what makes us human. But it truly is compulsive. Human beings do it so instinctively that they are forever ascribing malignant or benignant motives even to inanimate forces such as the weather, volcanoes, and internal-combustion engines. Our very cleverness is the start of our undoing when we're up against an evolutionary sharpshooter like the dog. We are primed to seize on what are, in truth, fundamental, programmed behaviors in dogs and read into them extravagant tales of love and fidelity. Often dogs need do no more than be their simple selves to amaze and beguile us.

This is a long article but I poured over it to keep one-up on Dad. Then I ate the magazine which upset my tummy but it keeps me in Mom and Dad's good (albit stupid, according to the scientists) graces.

Read it all here. Fascinating.

And a great additional comment on their blog:

Wednesday October 22, 2008, Adrian
I remember this original article and how angry it made me. How dare the author sugget that my dog doesn’t really, earnestly love me?

But having had several more years to reflect on it (throughout which I’ve been person to one or two dogs), I still start by quarrleing with the way the question is put. It’s hard to impute intention as complicated as pretense to an animal that we don’t fully understand. I mean, do we fully understand pretense in humans? Then how can we possibly do so in dogs?

But then I go to the concept of pretense itself. Is it pretense if we express affection because we get something in return? I guess it leads me to the realization that there’s a selfish impulse in so much of what we do. I love my partner in part because he loves me. Does that mean that I’m pretending to love him? I don’t think so.

For people who have and “get” dogs, at the end of the day, the real reaction to the question is, does it really matter? My dogs get from me what they need and want to live (happily I think), and I get pure, unbridled joy from the way they express their “love,” pretend or other, for me. I think I get the better part of the bargain.

And the proof, to me, of the sincerity of the transaction is that when my arthritic, half-blind, and increasingly grumpy old golden retriever finally sloughs off the mortal coil, I will be heartbroken and cry like a baby.

Dad's found the article by now, for sure. He came to me in the midst of my typing and told me not to worry. He agrees with Adrian who believes that dogs and humans are rather symbiotic. I lick dad's head and he assumes I love him. So he feeds me and rubs my belly. Not a bad deal for both of us.

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