Monday, March 8, 2010

The Scientist and the Dog Biscuit

Zen Mutt

If you think dogs can't count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving Fido only two of them. ~ Phil Pastoret

Right, and I can hear my empirically scientific, animals-don't-think-they-only-have-instincts, Uncle Henry saying, "He smells the third biscuit -- you might fool yourself, but not his nose."

"Okay, Uncle Henry, tell me this: how come after I've given my dog four little ones, all the while leaving the biscuit jar (canine counterpart of the one for cookies) lid off so he can easily smell more, he walks over to his water dish, takes a drink, and gets up on the kitchen love seat? Huh? Tell me he doesn't know 'four' is the limit."

"What he doesn't know is to stay off the furniture."

Oh, brother. "Uncle Henry, here's the deal. I allow my dog on the furniture and my cat, too. They aren't decorations intended to give my house an L.L. Bean 'look.' They're part of the family, so they can sleep pretty much anywhere they like. The question is, how does my dog know 'four' is the limit if he can't count?"

"He knows it because that's all you give him."

"Now you're getting the point. He can tell when he's gotten four -- if that's not counting, I don't know what is."

"All right, for the sake of argument, let's say he's aware that four biscuits signals the end of his fun. That doesn't mean he's ticking them off on his paw pads, like a kid counting on his fingers."

"No, it doesn't. But it does mean he can keep track of them, and isn't quantifying the essence of counting? We're keeping a tally. And even if he knows four is all he's getting because I tell him so, he is still able to grasp the concepts of 'how many' and 'no more.' These aren't instinctual, they're the result of cognitive processing."

"So, now your dog thinks, eh? Next thing you'll be telling me is, he wants to go to medical school, too."

And that's where the conversation ceased. I just didn't have the heart to tell him my dog practically dragged me into the admissions office the other day while taking our weekly walk around the campus.

(Creative Commons image by pixlfarmer via Flickr)

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