Originally published in slightly different form on August 10, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.
There’s a cat in my neighborhood who gets taken for a walk every night. He’s a very nice cat. His owners are nice too. And the cat does pretty well walking on a leash. But there’s a substantial difference between the way the cat relates to the people and dogs he meets on his section of the block, and the way most dogs relate to the people and dogs they meet. There’s also a substantial difference between the way the cat relates to his owners and the way most dogs relate to theirs.
I think it has to do with how much energy and attention is focused on others. The dogs are always looking to make a connection with people and other dogs, even with the cat. The cat is more self-possessed. The dogs are on his level, so he pays close attention, but is a tad wary of them, and perhaps rightly so. He also shows little or no interest in the people he sees.
I like cats a lot. But whenever I say hello to the cat, he ignores me. When I say hello to any of the dogs, most of them wag their tails, some jump up on me, and nearly every single one seems happy that I’m focused on him or her at that moment. The cat could care less.
I think the difference may have to do with predation, triangulation, and trilateration. I know it sounds strange, but hear me out.
In global positioning systems, satellites read the location of an object on earth through a process called trilateration, which is about reading the differences in distance between one object and at least two others: triangulation is about reading the differences in angles.
It seems to me, that most, if not all predators have an onboard capacity to both triangulate and trilaterate the angle and distance between themselves, other salient features of the terrain, and their prey. Group predators—which includes canids and homo sapiens—have the capacity to include not just the prey and terrain in their calculations, but other members of their hunting party as well. It seems to me that this expansion of a predator’s usual frame of reference is what makes dogs seem so smart in relation to other species (like cats).
Think of GIs in a war movie, positioning themselves to take out an enemy’s machine-gun nest. If radio silence is operative, the soldiers signal one another through hand gestures, pointing, eye contact, etc. Presumably our ancestors did the same thing when hunting large prey. To a certain degree, so did your dog’s ancestors (though, obviously, without the hand gestures).
There are a number of studies reportedly showing that dogs will respond to human gestures, and will follow a person’s gaze, and that they’re more capable of doing this than our closest relatives, chimpanzees. Scientists often mention the fact that humans and canines are group predators, and that this shared aspect of our evolutionary history may play a role in a dog’s abilities in this area. However, chimps are also social predators, the difference is that they don’t hunt animals that are larger and more dangerous themselves the way humans and canines do.
Another thing missing from the discussion is that dogs only look where we point while in a research setting, when asked to play a game, or when they’re given a verbal cue by their owners, particularly that involves finding a treat or a toy. If you randomly point behind a dog, he’ll usually ignore you or start looking on the ground in front of him. Dogs rarely look where you’re pointing unless a treat or a toy is involved, or unless they’ve been trained to do so, as in the “go to place” or “off the couch” command.
However, I have seen some dogs who—when walking off-leash in a park or at the beach, etc.—often look at their owner’s eyes as if to determine or anticipate the potential trajectory of that person’s path.
Many of the studies on dogs who follow where we point or who follow our gaze suggest that this indicates that dogs are capable of engaging in what’s called perspective taking—the ability to know that another being’s sensory inputs are both similar and different from your own—which is the first level of what’s called a Theory of Mind.
It has been said by many in the field that dogs have the same general capacities in this area as 3—4 year old children. However, newer studies show that children have this ability—and in a much more sophisticated way than previously thought—as early as 18 months of age. Their abilities are also far more sophisticated than those of even the “smartest” dog. And children come by this gift naturally, on their own, with no coaching.
Going back to differences between cats and dogs, the question is: are dogs more social than cats, and therefore more able to relate to human beings in much more complex ways1 because of their evolutionary history as social predators? I think the answer is a resounding yes.
A new study—“Should Social Savvy Equal Good Spatial Skills? The Interaction of Social Skills With Spatial Perspective Taking”—suggests that there’s a direct link between sociability and spatial skills. The more social a person is, the more he or she is aware of the spatial dynamics in relation to what others can or can’t see from where they’re located.
Participants were given a questionnaire to determine their social “IQ.” Then they were asked to make believe that certain inanimate objects had the ability to see. The objects used were a mock human figure (a small wooden artist’s model, described as a “potential agent”), a camera, and a triangular wooden block (described simply as “objects”). Then the test subjects had to make a determination as to what those objects would be able to “see” when placed in various positions around the room.
All of the participants did better on this spatial reasoning task when taking the perspective of the potential agent, i.e., the mock human figure. But “participants with better social skills were more accurate than less social peers when the target was a potential agent, whereas no such relationship was observed when the target was an object.”
This, presumably, has nothing to do with dogs, or how GPS systems operate. But I think there’s a connection. And I think it also relates back to why the cat in my neighborhood, who may in fact be much smarter than most of the dogs he sees every night (I’m sure he thinks he is), has very little interest in them or in the people he sees (or where his owners are or aren’t looking), while most dogs show an avid interest in all of these things.
House cats have no genes for social predation. Dogs do. And while many felines hunt large prey, they don’t hunt prey that are larger and more dangerous than themselves. And, again, in order to be successful, social predators have to be able to pay attention not only to the movements, trajectory, etc., of their prey, but also to the movements, trajectories, etc. of each individual member of their group. They also have to be able to read, in a fraction of a second, what another wolf’s gaze, posture, flick of an ear, etc., might tell them about the prey’s location and its possible trajectory. And this enables them to automatically form a wider frame of reference than animals who hunt solo. And that wider frame of reference is probably what makes domestic dogs so emotionally flexible and so adaptable.2
It seems to me that dogs are also able to tune in to our emotional trajectories. Going back to the platoon of soldiers, the GIs not only have to be able to communicate through eye contact and hand gestures, they have to be able to tune into each others’ emotional states as well. The same is true for a pack of wolves.
So I don’t think what makes dogs special is that they have a rudimentary Theory of Mind, which would require a “sense of self and other.” It’s that they’re so connected to us emotionally that they don’t feel themselves to be separate from us at all. That’s the true genius of dogs.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1) Guide dogs for the blind, police dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, etc.
2) Think of all the variations we see in the sizes and shapes of various dog breeds as opposed to the much smaller differences in cat breeds.