Saturday, March 28, 2015

Dogs and Cats (and skillful affection)

Dogs and cats seem to be a difficult case and I have been wondering why. There seem to be at least two reasons. First, their behavior is so tied up with ours that it is hard to see the instincts at work. Second, a lot of what is instinctive is not thought of as knowledge based.

The whole point of domestication is to work well with humans, so this is the focus of the instincts. For dogs and cats these instincts include affection (giving and seeking), obedience, trust, loyalty, companionship, etc. There are others, like play, warning and defense with dogs, or hunting with cats.

In humans the traits of affection, obedience, trust, loyalty, etc., are not thought of as knowledge based, so we also do not see them that way in dogs and cats. This is probably because they are instincts in humans.

But in fact each of these activities involves a great deal of decision making and therefore requires considerable skill, which means expertise. The same is true of horses and other domestic animals, but perhaps to a somewhat lesser degree.

For example, it is not enough to want to be affectionate (whatever that might mean), one also has to know how to do it. When it comes to dealing with humans, the differences between wild and domestic animals are dramatic. Domestic behavior is highly complex, requiring a lot of skill.

As my wife puts it, dogs are professional people pleasers. Most do it well. The research question is what do they have to know in order to do this well? It is not a simple question, by any means.

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