Animal Cognition – The Beginnings of Understanding

As stated in the opening page of this energy-water blog, I reserve the right “ occasionally discuss ‘random thoughts’ on other issues that catch my attention..”. This is one of those occasions, on a topic that I find personally fascinating and scientifically intriguing – animal cognition. Wikipedia defines animal cognition as “..the study of the mental capacities of animals.” For too long this has been a topic of limited scientific investigation and I suspect largely because of the difficulty of gathering data with animal subjects. How many young academic researchers are going to gamble their research careers on such a difficult field?

My interest was stimulated by observing and interacting with my dog, Illy, the second wonderful dog I have been privileged to have in my life. Both have been love machines but I do have to admit that the second is much smarter than the first, an Old English Sheepdog who died in my arms when she was 13. Illy, a female mix of Akita and German Shephard (and a few other breeds) is now 10 and doing just fine, and has taught me much about what dogs are capable of, which is much more than some researchers have been willing to admit. Of course this is no surprise to dog owners!



My interest in learning about animal cognition was triggered by my feelings during one of the many walks (more than 10,000) I’ve taken with Illy. After that walk I decided to put my thoughts down on paper (actually computer), resulting in a piece entitled ‘What I See When I look at My Dog’. One small quote from that piece: “I see a creature with two eyes, two ears, a mouth, a tongue, four limbs, a heart, lungs, and other internal organs that I have as well. My scientific sense tells me that this dog and I are related, distantly perhaps, but related nevertheless, and that it is only the vagaries of genetic mutation over very long time spans (more than I can comprehend) that accounts for our differences and differences with other living species.”

I also felt that my dog was extremely intelligent (don’t most dog owners feel that way?) and my next step was to look at the animal cognition literature. I ended up reading three books on the subject, two on dogs and one on cognition in a broad range of animals:
– The Genius of Dogs (Brian Hare, Vanessa Woods)
– What’s a Dog For? (John Homans)
– Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (Virginia Morell)
This latter book discusses cognition in dogs and wolves as well as ants, fish, birds, parrots, rats, elephants, dolphins, and chimpanzees. Brian Hare runs the Canine Cognition Center at Duke university; John Homans is the executive editor of New York magazine and has a dog in New York City, and Virginia Morell is a science journalist who has followed animal cognition for many years. All three books were informative, well written and easy to read.

What did I learn from these books and what conclusions did I draw? Simply put, I learned a lot about how animals are thinking and feeling fellow creatures with strong cognitive capabilities that, in some cases, rival or exceed our own. Research on animal cognition, just getting seriously underway, is closing in on the conclusion that core animal brains are similar to core human brains (we’ve developed an outer brain), and the coming decades should be able to shed much more light on animal cognitive abilities and on our special relationship with the canine world.

A good summary of Morell’s excellent book is provided by a reviewer (Liza Gross) who writes: “As Morell shows us, the need to elevate ourselves above nature runs deep. By the 1920s, the rise of behaviorists—psychologists who believed that science could investigate only observable behaviors—again demoted animals to mere stimulus-response robots incapable of anything approaching the human capacity for empathy, learning or intelligence. Some psychologists still cling to this view of animal automatons.

Try telling any dog or cat lover that her cherished companion doesn’t have a personality or care whether she lives or dies. I’ll never forget how our Airedale, Amanda, would let loose in a fit of hysterical howls as she flung herself into my arms every time I came home from college break. And I still miss the Russian blue who magically appeared purring at my feet whenever I was feeling down.

Such anecdotes are simply that, of course. But just because scientists don’t know how to study animal emotions doesn’t mean animals don’t experience them. And given how often a study knocks yet another “uniquely” human trait off its pedestal, it may be just a matter of time before someone figures out how to study emotions in animals too.”

My take on all this is that an exciting century awaits in terms of our understanding of animal emotions and skills and of their relationships with other creatures, including humans. In the case of dogs I’ve formed my conclusions: they are smart, thoughtful and feeling creatures who bring great pleasure to their human families and whose relationship with humans will be better understood and appreciated in the decades ahead.