by Ed Bailey

Printed with permission
First Published Gun Dog Magazine 1996

When having a conversation with your dog and he cocks his head one way, then the other, is he performing some learned response, is he just hearing a bunch of meaningless sounds and doing some random behaviors which brings a happy response from you, or is he really hanging on every word and thinking of what he can do to get something going? Is he thinking this is a bunch of silly nonsense, but if I go along with it I might get him off his duff and out for a run? Or is it some, or all or none of the above.

Does a dog just respond more or less automatically to perceived stimuli? Are signals just picked up and passed on, unmodified, to effector organs such as muscles? Is he a purely sentient animal or does he put two and two together, review his options, predict the probable outcome and put a goal-oriented plan into action? Does the dog think? How could you know with real certainty whether the dog is thinking out his actions or whether he is simply responding in more or less fixed action patterns?

To use a scientific approach to answering these questions, we would formulate a hypothesis which we would test. We would say: If a dog repeatedly and regularly fulfils certain measurable criteria, then we can safely say he is capable of conscious thought. The hooker is in validly selecting those “certain measurable criteria,” criteria which cannot be ascribed to any reason except conscious thinking. We need a definitive definition and that can be difficult because thinking is itself an abstract concept.

A definition of a conscious thought I would suggest and one I could live with is: The assimilation of enough aspects of a situation so as to allow highly accurate predictions t be made about the outcome or consequences of a particular path of action. If a dog can satisfy this definition during the performance of any given behavioural sequence, he can be considered as a thinking animal.. It works this way – the dog perceives with eyes, ears and nose a kind of multimedia picture of a situation, then processes the information and formulates a complex sequence of behaviour patterns to obtain a relatively abstract goal. The goal is abstract in the sense that it is not directly connected to the original stimulus situation, but is arrived at through some leaps of logic. It’s putting two and two together to equal five or six.

To test whether I could say a dog solved a problem by conscious thinking, I am going to resort to anecdotes of some of my dogs. All the dogs I will use as examples are eternally hunting in some ethereal fields so they won’t be embarrassed by the stories. I will present each situation as I observed it and how I interpreted it in terms of the thinking dog’s definition.

One dog I had (her name was Tempy) seemed to have wheels going around all the time, and I will draw most examples from her with some from one of her progeny, Taenzer. Both dogs were extremely clever, quick learning dogs, but did they really demonstrate thinking? Tempy was impossible to train in the conventional sense because she always had the situation well assessed and never made mistakes during a training session. Her son, Taenzer, was truly his mother’s son. When Tempy was nine months old I started her retrieving training. She already knew walking at heel and sit until told to move, so retrieving started with her sitting and holding my gloved hand in her mouth on the command to fetch. The progression was to then reach for my hand, then farther until she had to stand to reach it, then to a dummy and so on. Things moved very rapidly so that 20 minutes after the first “fetch” and putting my hand in her mouth, we were out of the yard into the field and she was taking a line on blind doubles 50 yards out in deep grass. But was it thinking that made retrieving old hat for her? I would say no. It was association, but there was no abstract goal; it was trial and error learning – a stimulus (fetch), response (go out get the dummy, return, sit down and give when told to) then the reinforcement of my please reaction and the good girl stuff. She did not miss a retrieve during her next 13 years including some I had no hope for and her retrieve lessons totalled 20 minutes.

Taenzer at seven months dragged a long line as I worked him toward his first – a planted pheasant. He pointed, I walked up the line to him, said nothing and flushed the bird. He started and I said “whoa,” tugged lightly on the line and then shot the bird. He again started on the fall. I gave a quiet “whoa,” the line was on the ground where I dropped it to shoot. No tug was needed, and he was forever after steady to wing, shot and fall. Again it was just learning, very quick and easy, but it doesn’t fit the definition we set for thinking. It does fall nicely into associative learning, however.

A few weeks later he was even quicker to learn retrieving than his mom. In a real hunting situation, he pointed a pheasant, I flushed and shot it, went out and picked up the bird and took it to him. I put it in his mouth, told him to fetch and ran away. He came running carrying the bird for a hundred yards or so. I stopped, and as he came up to me I told him to give. He did, and from then on he retrieved every bird very nicely including broken-wing runners. One trial learning, but it was just associative learning, not thinking. These anecdotal examples show fast learning, and maybe super smart dogs (I prefer not to use the words like smart or intelligent, I would rather say quick learn and leave it at that), but they do not satisfy the definition we set up for thinking. So let’s look at some other examples of situations that occurred, mostly with Tempy.

In the spring, before the grass and weeds were more than a few inches tall, woodchucks were visible at long distances in the fields surrounding my house. Tempy could see them from the high ground in the fenced yard, so over the fence and a hunting she would go. I watched her on many occasions and her technique was faultless. She trotted directly toward a ‘chuck, making every attempt to be seen. Carrying a flashing neon sign could not have made her more obvious. When the ‘chuck noticed her it dove quickly into its hole and then Tempy made her move. She ran hell bent to the burrow, went around to the backside and crouched, eyes just above ground level. In a few minutes old Marmot cautiously came out and looked toward the last place it had seen the dog, and gradually stretched its neck for a better view. Tempy, only inches behind, dove in, grabbed its neck, gave a quick shake and then trotted home to the back gate where she left the ‘chuck and went off hunting another.

Some years earlier, while doing research on groundhogs, I was into my second summer’s work before I figured out that if I approached a feeding or sunning ‘chuck casually, it dove into its hole but came up in a few minutes and always looked in the direction where it last saw me. I figured I was pretty clever when I finally concluded this was an easy way to collect them. Now here was my dog doing it when she was three years old. Is this thinking or just a brilliant bit of learning? Definitely there was learning involved, but when we consider the complex sequence of behaviors she went through to attain an abstract goal, and none except the final spring at the neck directly related to the goal, we can surely invoke thinking. She assimilated a lot of aspects of the situation, made a prediction (if I casually push that ‘chuck into its burrow, it will come out again soon and look in a specific direction, and if I position myself so it will be looking away from me when it emerges, I can grab it and kill it quickly before it bites me) and achieved a goal not easily possible by any other means. It made her a deadly efficient groundhogger. It also made it nerve wracking for me because she simply leaped up on the fence (five feet high) pulled herself over and went groundhogging. So I devised a plan to keep her in.

I strung a hot wire a few inches above the fence, hooked I a battery powered click-click type fencer and tested it bravely with a piece of grass. It worked. I watched her a few days and she never tried the fence that I saw. Some weeks later I neglected to turn on the fencer. I remembered a few minutes after I turned her out but I was too late. With rain pouring down, I slogged around the fields and finally found a soaking wet dog crouched just on the uphill side of a groundhog hole. Obviously she had figured out the hot wire even without putting it to a test, then biding her time until the day there was no clicking, she made her move. This case scenario fits the conscious thinking criteria and leaves no doubt that some very advanced brain processes were going on.

Grouse and woodcock hunting in Southern Ontario involve some heavy cover with visibility measured in terms of feet and inches. Most of the time is spent trying to locate the dog on point and then finding an approach to allow a shot. Tempy devised her own method. As we approached a dense cover that looked likely, at least to me, she would take off, make a big loop to the far side and just thrash her was toward me. Most times a grouse or a woodcock came highballing right at me and I would turn to take them going away in relatively open woods. She scooted on by and retrieved. IN these situations she never pointed, it was her style of a drive hunt. In open cover or in the fields, she pointed; not the picture book grouse shooting, but effective.
Again a carefully thought-out plan, even going against a well-developed pointing instinct, involving complex behaviors in order to obtain an abstract goal.

Under warm weather conditions in the high dense cover of standing corn, Tempy and another bitch named Adi both developed a retrieve technique that is used in Europe when tracking a wounded deer, except this was on pheasants. I did not train them to do it, they invented it. On perhaps a half-dozen occasions I shot birds that fell a long way out in the corn with these two dogs. Gone a long time, I assumed it was a winged runner, the dogs came back without the bird. Then they led me several hundred yards to where they had placed the bird. The bird was always placed in the open at the edge of the field. These dogs did not overlap so it was not a case of imitation learning. I considered it a thought-out plan. Under other conditions, retrieves were to hand but given hot, dry, minimum tillage corn fields, the dogs had a plan to get the job done without overdoing the work load. If it had become just a regular sloppy retrieve pattern, I would suggest a learning situation, but it only happened under the described conditions so I considered it as conscious thought.

In the early years of the history of the study of animal behaviour, the definition of conscious thought required verbalizing the thought. As only humans have the capability to describe thoughts in words, by definition, only humans were able to think in abstract thoughts; a bit egocentric, if not plain stupid. In later years, verbalization and nonverbal sounds, scent, body language were included thus opening the door for the so called lower animals. But then the philosophical concepts of mind, consciousness, awareness, and other non-physical entities jumped into the pond and muddied the water again. Thinking demanded there be a set of mental images, pictures, and as no one could say a dog had these images, we could not ascribe thinking to dogs or any animal except those that could give a description of the image, so it was humans by default.

But right now as I write this, my dog is stretched out asleep beside my chair; his feet are moving, he is making some odd sounding woofs, he is growling, there are more woofs, and his mouth is moving in chewing or biting movements. He’s dreaming. My dreams are images, moving pictures, in Technicolor and stereophonic sounds. I’ll bet most people dream that way and the images are there whether you describe them or not. The dreams Ike is having are obviously images, too. He “sees” in his minds eye a squirrel or the neighbour’s cat or a running wing-tipped bird conjured up from last season. We have all seen and heard our dogs dreaming and we can be pretty sure the dreams are made up of mental images. Even a restrictive definition of thinking that is written with a human bias can be satisfied, at least for the obvious case of dreaming.

Some behaviourists have suggested that purposeful deception is an example of conscious thought. So, does a dog practice purposeful deception? To be purposefully deceptive, a deceiver must have an obvious plan, a distinct abstract goal, arrived at through complex and devious means. Again, Tempy provides some very deceptive purposes. After her first and only litter she developed some reproductive tract problems and was spayed. But she always enjoyed a good game of chase me and used several ways to draw the other dogs into it. With one male her technique often was to posture in front of him, curve her tail to the side, arch her back and look “longingly” over her shoulder. The whole picture was a very receptive bitch in heat. The male started to salivate, panted and tried to mount. At this point she would twist around, hip him in the neck and bounce off enticingly. He fell for it every time and the chase was on until she decided to stop. That is deception as well-planned as any soap opera. Though spayed some years earlier, she used body language to deceive for a purpose not at all related to means used.

She also practised interspecific deception to achieve an abstract goal with me. She was two or three years old when she invented it and she practiced it throughout her life. The name of the game was, “I’m not ready to quit hunting yet.” The pattern was varied to suit the situation of cover and the location of the car, and was independent of how long we had been out, how tired she or I was or how successful we had been. As we approached the car to call it a day, she became very busy, working into any cover available. She would go on point, break it, creep along the cover, point and creep, giving the perfect picture of tracking a moving pheasant, if indeed not a whole flock of them. The conjured up birds always headed away from the car and the drama continued for a quarter mile or so when the birds were suddenly lost and she started merrily quartering. I knew I had been duped again. That scenario I interpret as deception, pure but not so simple. It is very complex abstract thinking.

Other dogs I’ve had demonstrated thinking to some extent. None were as accomplished as Tempy, which points up another characteristic of abstract conscious thought. There is a lot of individual variability. Dogs, just like people, don’t all think alike. Some are amazingly proficient and some must have been standing behind the door when that ability was handed out. Hansel, the male that Tempy manipulated so well, was a very good dog, predictable, efficient, honest and totally dependable. But, he lacked imagination (or maybe had too much in some cases) and he lacked the creative thinking ability that Tempy apparently had in spades. We all know people who always seem to have a solution as soon as the problem occurs, while others we know don’t seem to have a thought in their head or seem to analyse situations with some part of the anatomy other than the brain.

The bottom line then as to whether dogs think is: Are they consciously devising solutions to problems, making predictions of the outcome of a series of behaviors and consciously visualizing the logical sequence – if this and this, then that and such will follow? Certainly they are. They fit the definitions, they satisfy the criteria for conscious thought. Probably all animals have the ability to think, some more, some less. In the behaviour literature there are even examples of hummingbirds performing complex behaviors to achieve an abstract goal, including the masterful use of deception: all this in a brain the size of a very small pea. Not many years ago the idea of any animal other than human having conscious thought would have been decried as gross anthropomorphism, the worst form of behavioural sacrilege. Sure there are differences between species, but ability to think is not as greatly different as was once believed. Far larger differences occur in manipulatory skills.

If it scares you that your dog might be outthinking you, (read it, outsmarting) take heart, they have been doing it for thousands of years. How else could they have been domesticated so well? Their ability to think is possibly the only thing that allows them to tolerate us. Be careful you don’t misinterpret fast learning as conscious thinking, just stick to the carefully construed definition you devise, and objectively watch your dog make a fool of you. And then you simply smile.

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Updated 15 May 2005