Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What a turkey!

My dog’s reaction to his first sighting of a male turkey provides valuable insight into how a dog’s brain works.
Every morning between 8 and 10 a.m., a flock of about 15 wild turkey hens travel through my backyard. In the deep snow, they traveled strictly in a single file line across a path worn down the resident deer, who take the same journey through our yard twice a day.
With the snow gone, they spread out quite a bit more — some come up close to the house to peck at the gravel, others wade through moist swampy area also pecking at the ground, but I haven’t the slightest clue as to whether they’re drinking or eating.
I like watching the turkeys. I hadn’t seen them in the wild since I was a child up north at my grandparents’ cabin. Now, I get a great view of their large, awkward selves — the heads bobbing forward with each step and that giant body of theirs teetering on top of tiny little legs and feet.
All throughout the winter, it was the hens and hens alone who traveled the route. At one point, several flocks seemed to merge together and their single file line seemed to go on forever as more than 50 birds would walk through my yard.
Needless to say, Sensi is quite accustomed by now to seeing these birds. He seems to understand they are no threat to him and quite the opposite, he watches them with what I’d call a predatory gaze.
All this time, we had not seen a single Tom (a male turkey).
While driving home one day last week, a Tom crossed the road in front of me. I laughed at the red thing that hangs under its beak, called a Wattle (I think) because it was swinging violently from side to side as the turkey ran its heart out to race across the road.
It was my first sighting of a Tom.
On Monday, I watched the flock of hens cross in my yard and to my surprise, spotted a small Tom in their midst. And then, bringing up the rear of the flock were three other Toms, but these were the big guys. I was shocked at how much larger they were than the hens, their wattles looking nearly as long as my arm.
Sensi and I watched the birds intently, as we always do, and when they reached the top of the hill, one of the Toms spread out its feathers in that historic fashion we all know turkeys for.
Sensi’s eyes went wide, his hackles raised and immediately, he began barking with all the ferocity he could muster.
This, of course, was a reaction caused by the intense fear he experienced when he watched a bird transform from something he was used to seeing to a much larger, alien life form.
He didn’t know what to think.
He had no prior experiences to tell him this is simply something male turkeys do and as a dog, does not have the analytical capacity to assume, "It was a turkey a few seconds ago. Even though it looks completely different now, it must still be a turkey."
What can we gather from this about dogs? A lesson in generalization.
A dog will not know that a turkey can suddenly appear to double in size unless it is exposed to Toms who exhibit this behavior.
Why? Dogs don’t generalize.
What is new and novel is oftentimes alarming until the dog understands it is no threat.
The situation with the turkey can be similar to a variety of situations with humans.
A human dressed in jeans and t-shirt who walks into a room is one thing; the dog has seen this before, knows this person and is not alarmed.
If the same human walks into the room dressed up in a bulky snowsuit with a funky hat and a mask that covers 90 percent of their face, it is not a human at all to the dog who sees him for the first time — nope, it’s an alien life form, new and novel and the dog will tend to be fearful until it becomes clear that this strange, bulky life-form is non-threatening. Even though the human underneath it all is the same, the scent is the same and the voice is the same, the visual is not.
And this is generalization.
It takes a lot for us humans to really grasp what it means to not generalize, because it is something we do so naturally.
Lucky for all my readers, I’ll just keep pounding it into your heads.
Thanks for reading!!

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