I wish everyone could have heard Alexandra Horowitz’s talk that introduced the conference this morning. She gave an articulate and thought provoking speech about the “umwelt” of the dog. “Umwelt” is a term coined by Uexkull to mean the world of an organism, as it is sensed, perceived and interpreted. The point, which was well explained by Alexandra, is that each species sees the world differently, based on their perceptual abilities (ie, bees see colors we don’t, dogs smell things we don’t) and the parts of their environment that are relative to them. Some have said that because each species, literally, lives in different worlds, we can never really understand what it is like to be another animal. (This was famously addressed in philosopher’s Nagel’s oft-cited article, “What is it like to be a Bat?”)
Alexandra (and I) agree with that comment to some extent — how could we ever really know what it is like to have a nose like a dog’s? — , but not to the extent that we shouldn’t give it a good try. After all, we can’t really know what goes on in the mind of another person, but we can made inferences. We can use our knowledge about the sensory capabilities of an animal and how it interacts with its environment to know a tremendous amount about who it really is and what’s going on inside its mind.
Given what we know about dogs, as listed by Horowitz: The world, to them, is:
Incredibly smelly — imagine that a simple flower contains a history of the insects that have visited it, the people who picked it, the petal that is dying versus the petal that is just about to reach its peak.
Full of our Knees (go down to your dog’s height and look at the world from there.. boy is it different),
Running at a Different Rate — I love this concept of hers, that scents come and go at different rates than visual signals, disappearing, moving around, full of information about the past in a sensory world that make look the same to us but is constantly changing to a dog. She also reminded us that dogs see at a faster “flicker-fusion” rate than humans, such that their brains divide visual signals into smaller units than do ours. Could it be that they then are quicker to see movements when they begin than we? We do know that they are better at seeing movement than we are…
Full of Details — that may be irrelevant to us, like the scent on the carpet, the slime trail of slugs on a blade of grass.
Evaluated based on how a dog can relate to it: Can it fit in my mouth? Do I chew it or chase it? Just as we see a pencil and a mitten as 2 completely different things, dogs may categorize them as the same; as things that can be picked up and put in the mouth, (or slept on, or rolled in, etc etc).
All of this is not new, in a way, but then, of course, it is, because we all need reminding that our reality is just that, ‘our reality,’ and it is no more a reflection of truth than is a bee’s view of flowers with ultraviolet stripes pointing to the pollen, or a dog’s map of the scent of a hidden toy, carried along by the breeze.
In summary, her talk was a great introduction to tomorrow’s topic of Canine Cognition. The afternoon was great fun, with an inspiring session done by Victoria Stilwell, a great champion of positive training methods, as is Kyra Sundance, trick trainer extraordinaire. Given that I’m introducing the day tomorrow, I’d better close here and get back to working on my talk. [pardon any mis-spellings, etc…. I usually proof but need to finish up my talk!]
I am, I will admit, a tad tuckered. Many of us did a book signing and I signed books for one and three quarter hours. The process is incredibly reinforcing, I am so incredibly grateful to meet so many wonderful, gracious people, but I lost my voice by the end. But I did get an extra treat….after having our pictures taken who knows how many times, Victoria and I turned the tables and got a picture of us together. Great fun.