Does Your Dog Understand You?

brought to mind a question that, as a dog lover, I have wondered about: Do dogs have any kind of sense of the future?

Martin Dworkin(martin@lenti.med.umn.edu)
Jan 30, 2005

Your article "Does Your Dog Understand You?"1 brought to mind a question that, as a dog lover, I have wondered about: Do dogs have any kind of sense of the future? Or is that ability so abstract that it can only exist along with the ability for language? Have any experiments ever been done with dogs, such as a kind of Pavlovian conditioning, where there is a temporal separation between the associated conditioning factors that nevertheless still can result in an induced response? And do dogs have a true sense of the past, other than simply retaining an association between objects? In other words, after two weeks of separation, does my dog remember that I left him?

One thing occurred to me while reading the Dec. 20 Vision article;1 while there's no doubt that selection pressure led to canid behaviors that 'fake' or signal intelligence to humans, it...

Clive Wynne responds

Dogs certainly have some sense of the future, and the past. Pavlov trained dogs to salivate just because of the passage of time. Dogs were repeatedly given food every 30 minutes; then a feeding was omitted. The dog salivated 30 minutes after the last feeding. The interval of time itself had become a conditioned stimulus; a simple kind of expectation of food at a particular time had developed.2Darwin gives an example at a different time scale. After he had been away for five years he tested his dog's memory by shouting to it in his accustomed manner. The dog "showed no joy, but instantly followed me out walking, and obeyed me, exactly as if I had parted with him only half an hour before."3

It certainly is interesting, and at times frustrating, how animals have been trained to fake human intelligence for our entertainment. As the proportion of Americans who live off the land fell from 40% at the beginning of the twentieth century to 2% by its end, according to US census data from 1901 and 2000, so our understanding of animal minds has been driven more and more by Hollywood's ingenious productions. What made Disney famous has been a tragedy for public understanding of animal minds.