Thursday, June 10, 2010

I disagree

Oh, social networking — how I love thee.
Yesterday, I saw a tweet that a had link to an article titled, “Dogs dumbed down by domestication.” Before I let my blood boil, I told myself to click the link and read the darn article.
It’s actually a pretty good article, but I still disagree.
First off, the headline “Dogs dumbed down by domestication” should have read, in my opinion, “Dogs dumbed down by co-evolution; humans too.”
I just finished reading Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation and those of you who read this blog regularly are aware of that by now. I can hear all of you groaning, “Oh geez, here she goes on Temple Grandin again. Give it a break already!”
But I won’t, because she is brilliant and I think she is right. First off, there is hard evidence that the old adage of us domesticating the dog is just not true. Why? Because a sign of domestication is brain shrinkage and guess what? Both the human brain and the dog brain shrank when our two species came together, albeit in different areas. And that is called co-evolution, not domestication.
To read an inspiring blog post all about this and how the saying “Dogs make us human” is really, really true, click here.
Secondly, the subhead to this other article states, “That blank stare in your dog’s eyes could be the result of thousands of years of human intervention.”
OK, the blood is getting hot; almost to a boil now.
If your dog wears a blank stare around, then you have done a really crappy job of training your dog. Dogs who receive positive reinforcement training learn to problem solve quite well and I’ve never seen a dog with a history of positive reinforcement training have a blank stare.
If your dog is staring blankly, shame on you. My dog has never, ever had blank eyes. In fact, everyone who meets him comments on how he seems to “tell you everything with his eyes.”
Now from the dumb headline and sub-headline to the context of the article, which is a report on a study which found that domestic dogs do worse at problem solving situations than wolves and wild dogs.
Is this supposed to be a surprise? Scientists know and have known for a long time that the area of the dogs’ brain which shrank during co-evolution was the frontal lobes, a.k.a. the intelligence center. Of course pet dogs will perform more poorly on these tests than wolves and wild dogs. These are the type of skills that nature decided dogs didn’t need anymore, because of us.
That is not to say dogs can’t problem solve, though. Training is problem solving. They just can’t do it as well as their wild predecessors and that much makes sense. Dogs have us, wolves do not.
Lastly, what about the study that shows pet dogs have an ability to read human facial expressions in ways that wild dogs and wolves cannot? Temple Grandin — yes, back to Temple Grandin again — talked about this study in her book. It shows that things go both ways: you lose a little intelligence here, gain a little intelligence there.
The study this article centered around was not a bad one and its results are not surprising — in fact, they’re on par with everything we already knew about pet dogs vs. wolves and wild dogs.
But for the headline writer to infer that dogs have been dumbed down by domestication (co-evolution, please!) and that all dogs wear around these blank stares is just uneducated and goes to show how dumb the human race can be too.
And I am sincerely worried about that headline writer’s dog. In my opinion, a blank stare indicates a pretty bleak life.
Remember — when it comes to dogs and humans, if we’re going to use the term domestication, it applies to both of us. And it means we both got “dumber.”
I like to think, however, that we both evolved to maintain our most useful skill sets considering our new partnership with another species.

Find low prices for Temple Grandin's book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior on by clicking here.

Do these eyes look blank to you? I think not!

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