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My Dog, the Knowledge Engineer

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BILL DESMEDT
Bill DeSmedt

The "Genius of Dogs" ...

... is all the rage these days, especially so in the wake of the same-named book by canine cognition researchers Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. But it turns out that what Hare and Woods have in mind is dogs' genial talent for letting their owners (us humans) do the cognitive heavy-lifting.

So, what about actual genius?

As to that, I offer in evidence the lowly (pun intended) dachshund.

The product of five hundred years of German engineering, one of the things dachshunds have been bred for is an ability to think for themselves -- a necessity when you're down a burrow, out of earshot of your master's commands. That trait has given them an undeserved reputation for willfulness: when you tell them to "come" and they stand there looking at you, they're not really disobeying the command, they're just thinking it over.

The question is: just how far does that ability to think for themselves go? Here, a couple of suggestive episodes come to mind.

When is a Stair not a Stair?

This first incident concerns Millie, numero uno in our line of wirehaired dachshunds, and her encounter with a rather curious piece of furniture. The item in question, acquired at some long-ago garage sale, was a night table of sorts, fashioned to look like a short (just two risers) staircase. The top riser was on hinges and opened to reveal a storage compartment, so it was more useful than it perhaps sounds. Which is, I suppose, how it found its way into our kitchen on the day in question, set flush up against the side of the kitchen island we used for preparing food.

Well, food preparation was in fact taking place on the island that evening, and Millie was, as usual, intensely interested in what was taking place up topside. She was racing around the scene of the action in tight circles, barking and whining, just to let us know that, if there were any extra tidbits on offer, she was available to take them off our hands. Finally, her enthusiasm got the better of her: she jumped onto the first riser of the stair-like night stand, prepared no doubt to climb all the way to the top, where she could make her case all the more convincingly.

That's when it happened: as Millie landed on what she thought was a stair, it lurched and skidded under her weight.

I'll never forget Millie's reaction: She jumped down, backed off, and stared, almost accusingly, first at the "stair," then at me. If she could have spoken, I'm sure she would have said, "Stairs aren't supposed to move!" As it was, her expression said it for her.

I cite this otherwise unremarkable incident because I think it speaks to the issue of human uniqueness. We humans, it seems, are at pains to find those qualities that set us apart from the rest of the natural world, but lately our stock of distinctions has been running low. We used to think we were the only animals capable of language, for instance, but then along came Washoe, the first in a line of sign-language using chimpanzees. Self-awareness seemed a safe bet for a while, until it turned out that the other great apes, and some cetaceans as well, could also pass the signature "mirror test."

So it was that we fell back to our last line of defense, the one quality no other animal could hope to match: our capacity for abstract thought -- our ability to reason, not just about the individual things we encounter in the world, but even more so about the general concepts they embody. This claim is of particular interest to me personally, because, as a knowledge engineer, abstract concepts are my stock in trade. In fact, it's my job to pile such concepts one on top of another, building entire hierarchies (a.k.a., "taxonomies") of interrelated ideas from the ground up.

For example, starting with an individual like Millie, we could quickly determine that she is an example of the breed called "Dachshund," which in turn is a kind of "Hound." Hounds are, in their own turn, a type of "Dog," which is a subclass of the "Canids," etc., etc., on up through "Carnivores," and "Mammals," and "Vertebrates," till somewhere in the Linnaean stratosphere we arrive at the archetype "Living Organism," itself a kind of "Thing."

Anyway, this particular contender in the uniqueness sweepstakes holds that we humans are alone in our ability to erect such dizzying conceptual edifices. And that brings me back to Millie.

Because I don't think it's too farfetched to interpret what Millie experienced that day in the kitchen as a sort of ontological sinkhole in the middle of her conceptual terrain. Through long acquaintance, she had apparently formed an abstract notion -- a working definition, if you will -- of a stair. And one feature of that definition was evidently the (true) proposition that "stairs don't move."

Millie's confusion was due, I think, to her having been confronted with an object which, while it looked like a stair, patently did not obey the rules for a stair, thereby precipitating an episode of cognitive dissonance which no dachshund should have to endure.

Nicki Abhors a Vacuum

Well, that all happened some fifteen years ago, and I probably hadn't thought about it in nearly that long, when it was brought back to me just last month. Over the intervening years a succession of wirehaired dachshunds have graced our home and shared our lives. The latest edition is Nicki, and she's a bit of a departure, being a miniature wirehair. I have it on good authority (my wife's), that this breed is the world's smallest hunting dog, though what it is they hunt has been left unspecified (my money's on field mice).

Despite her diminutive size (at ten pounds she's about half the weight of her illustrious predecessors), Nicki is every inch a dachshund, with initially one glaring exception: she didn't bark. Strangers at the door, cats strolling insouciantly across our deck, toys or treats dangled just out of reach -- none of these standard ploys could coax a sound out of her. Naturally, I resolved to remedy this unnatural state of affairs.

My chosen training tool was the household vacuum cleaner. It took a little doing, but eventually Nicki got the idea that, when the business end was gliding back and forth over the rug sucking and rumbling away, that was her signal to attack! And attack she did, and now still does, dashing in barking and growling to fight and bite at the floor nozzle, much to the chagrin of our cleaning lady. The barking reaction swiftly transferred itself to other stimuli, and nowadays Nicki barks at doorbells and drumrolls and the barks of other dogs.

The world having been restored to normal, I pretty much forgot about the whole business. Until, as I say, last month. That was when, rushing to get the house in shape for a friend's visit, I noticed some dust and debris on the dining room floor. With no time to get out the vacuum, I grabbed a broom from the closet and began sweeping.

And Nicki attacked! Apparently, she had taken the idea that floor-cleaning performed by a vacuum was a target of opportunity and generalized it to floor-cleaning in the abstract. In any case, there she was snarling and biting at the broom's brush with all the gusto previously reserved for the vacuum's nozzle.

Here again, I would advance this as evidence of a capacity for abstract thought on the part of our kindred mammals.

Your Turn?

There's a time-honored maxim in engineering: if a straight-line fit is desired, plot only two data points. Not sure what kind of curve I'm trying to fit to here, but these two data points are all I've got.

So, how about it, dear fellow dog-lover readers? Have you observed any such philosophical proclivities in your own pets? If so, please post a comment below. Thanks!