Monday, February 7, 2011

Retrieving, Thinking and Philosophy of Mind

Quite a long time ago I read a philosopher's paper which I do not remember well. I think it was Dennett, and I think it was on decision-making, but what I do remember vividly is that he wrote about throwing two tennis balls for his Labrador. The dog would race back and forth between the two for quite some time, then choose one apparently at random when he was tired enough.

Now, what is surprising here is that I didn't try this on one of my own dogs sooner. I think this must be a paper from when my husband was in graduate school, when we had a dog who didn't care to fetch, or from my undergraduate program, when the dog was at home with my parents and school had nothing to do with my retreats there. However, Dennett was recently brought back to my attention by a secondhand social contact, and I tried to recall if this was his story.

Then I formed a hypothesis. Not all dogs are Labradors, bred to take directions. Some breeds, particularly herders, are required to make snap decisions on their own, and the German Shepherd Dog is one of those breeds. I expected that one object would bounce more or further, and that my dog would go after that one. Then, of course, I whistled for Dustin.

His current obsession is magnolia cones. They bounce and skitter tolerably well, and saved me the trouble of finding two reasonably well-matched balls in this chaotic household. Also, it's not too hard to fit two in one hand to throw together. And it turned out I was right: one cone always activated the naughty-sheep protocol by bouncing further, and he chose that one without hesitation every time. At first he would bring it to the less-traveled cone, good herding dog that he is, intending to bring both, but then he would switch to retrieve protocol on realizing only one would fit in his mouth. Then, of course, he brought the bouncier one.

I suppose the moral of the story is that before one generalizes about the simpleness or complexity of canis lupus familiaris minds, one must first examine multiple breeds. Labradors, as my friend Mary is wont to say, were bred to do what they were told, however it might be conveyed, by men who went to the training field with a six-pack and a gun. Those who stayed in the gene pool were the ones who could figure out how to what they were told, not those who made up new ways to do things. Herders, on the other hand, have to make snap decisions on controlling the individual sheep (or ducks, cows, reindeer, what-have-you) to conform to the large-scale directions given by their handler. Two or more lambs (see previous parenthetical) may take off in different directions at once, and the herding dog has to have a plan for that or devise one on the fly.

Of course, that does lead to an inventive streak the rest of the time. Sunny took to doing her obedience exercises with flair, and I suppose that the AKC guidelines don't say the dog can't walk from front to finish on her hind legs while whooping to the ceiling. At least, they didn't before she came along. I haven't checked the handbook lately. Dustin, asked to herd ducks, decided it would be more fun to push them into a group if he could then excite them into standing tall and quacking wildly, then do a sort of Evel Knievel routine over them. He seems to feel that it's rude to boss around such small and harmless creatures -- give him a good big rude sheep any day.

Or, of course, a naughty magnolia cone.

No comments:

Post a Comment