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Dogs, wolves and the meaning of ‘dogness’

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Clive Wynne

Professor of psychology
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Dog lovers know the feeling. Their pets seem human. The way they lick a tear-stained face or gaze adoringly, sometimes even more so than friends or, um, spouses.

But that’s a misperception, says animal behaviorist, author and contrarian Clive Wynne. People may behave like animals, but dogs, he says, are just good at being dogs.

With new discoveries about animal intelligence announced practically every day, there is growing sentiment that dogs, parrots and ark-loads of other creatures share the essential qualities of Homo sapiens. This yanks Wynne’s chain. A professor of psychology and author of “Do Animals Think?” he contends that while animals may appear uncannily human, it is strictly an appearance. Their perceptions and cognitive abilities are radically different from ours.

Wynne, who earned degrees from University College London and the University of Edinburgh, researches pet dogs at his Canine Cognition Laboratory in Gainesville and captive wolves at Wolf Park, a research park in Indiana. There, he explores what might be termed the meaning of ‘dogness,’ delving into such questions as whether dogs have become genetically programmed to respond to human cues. The answer seems to be no. The wolves in Wynne’s experiments follow human points and other doggy directions.

But, says Wynne, over their at-least 10,000 years of domestication, dogs have lost the ability to hunt prey effectively. As a result, they are utterly dependent on people—and so become experts at figuring out what their masters want.

“You are your dog’s project,” Wynne says. “He really has nothing to do all day but watch your every move and try to detect even the smallest difference in your activities that could predict that something is about to happen to his benefit.”

Your dog jumps up for his walk before you’ve grabbed the leash? A response to a subtle change in how you stood up. Specially trained dogs’ sensitivity to oncoming seizures in owners? Proof of their ability to smell small changes in human body chemistry. The love you share with your dog? For Wynne, that’s a happy convergence of dogs’ yearning for a pack leader and people’s yearning to nurture children.

Wynne’s ideas can raise the hackles of some pet owners. When he told Cat Fancy magazine that cats jump into their owners’ laps because they want to get warm, a woman wrote him a letter asserting of a deceased feline, “HE WAS HUMAN.”

But, for Wynne, dogs and other animals shouldn’t have to be human-like to qualify for our respect and admiration. The fact that dogs can sniff out bombs in baggage or emotional upheavals in their owners speaks not only to their otherness, he says, but also to the remarkable intimacy of the bond between human and dog.

As for spouses, well, that’s for other researchers to study.