Psychology is going to the dogs

My friend came across an opinion piece from the New York Times and recommended it to me, saying it encompassed all my favorite things: dogs, children and psychology.  Sure enough, the article titled “Is your dog smarter than your two-year-old?” covered dogs, kids and psychology and got me laughing along the way.  The author is a psychologist who studies canine cognition, but she took a less scientific approach for this piece and compares her dog’s behavior to her two-year-old’s behavior.  While the article is funny and cute, it also brings up a few points that relate to our discussions of animal consciousness.  If all three of them look in a mirror, the author writes, her child recognizes himself in the mirror while the dog does not.  According to most tests, dogs do not appear to have theory-of-mind, which children begin to develop around 18 months.  However, the author points out, when you present dogs with two urine samples, one of their own and one of a strange dog, they spend more time sniffing the strange urine sample.  Some people say this indicates that dogs have some capacity to differentiate between a “self” and an “other”, although it doesn’t prove that they have theory of mind.  It is interesting to think about what behaviors a child and a dog share that might show that they are at the same level of cognitive or emotional development, but I think the author makes an important point in the first paragraph of her article.  By attempting to compare dogs and children on the basis of one trait, intelligence, “it at once overstates and understates dogs’ capabilities…” she writes.  While it is tempting to say that a dog has the intelligence of a 2-year-old for the sake of comparison, I agree that it overlooks some capabilities that dogs do have while also overstating some of their abilities.  In many ways, such as theory-of-mind, two-year-olds possess higher cognitive functions than dogs will ever develop.

After reading this article, I was curious about canine cognition, so I googled it and found that canines are a popular research subject for Alzheimer’s research.  Apparently dogs sometimes experience Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, which is similar enough to Alzheimer’s disease that it can be used as a natural model of the disease for research.  Dogs experiencing Cognitive Dysfunction have amyloid-beta deposits, just like the amyloid-beta deposits that have been implicated in the human model of Alzheimer’s disease.  I think it is really cool that we can use a naturally-occuring animal disorder to study a human disease, rather than creating an artificial disease model in some other lab animal (although that certainly has it’s benefits too).  It also seems ironic that dogs, which we just compared to two-year-old humans, are also being used to study a disease associated with aging.  Maybe we’re more similar to our pets than we thought…

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