Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Dogs: It's Not What Their Nose Knows But How Well They Know Their Masters

The introduction of two new dogs into our lives has been a wonderful and extraordinary experience. This, in part, is because the intelligence and intuitiveness of Jack and Nicky seem boundless.

In the few weeks that we have had these four-and-a-half-year old chocolate Labrador retrievers
, a breed known for its smarts, we have observed that they less judge the character of the people and dogs that they encounter than how we relate to those people and dogs.

This may explain why Nicky and Jack go onto high alert and immediately come to the side of the Dear Friend & Conscience when a disreputable neighborhood dog with an aggressive disposition comes onto the property, while their tails go all a-wag when they encounter the golden retriever and her master, who is an old acquaintance.

Radley Balko, writing at Reason, reaches the same conclusion:
"For the first few years I had her, I was impressed by my late dog Harper's uncanny ability to assess people's character. She hated every crappy landlord and bad roommate. Barked at them. Snarled at them. Wouldn't go near them. But if I brought home a date I liked, Harper, a Shar Pei/Labrador mix, would curl up right next to the woman and turn on the charm. It took me several years to figure out that my dog wasn't a good judge of character; she was just good at reading me. She liked the people I liked and disliked the people who rubbed me the wrong way. For dogs descended from lines bred for protection and companionship, this talent makes sense. A dog adept at distinguishing friend from foe was likely to be kept around and bred, and one very good way to tell friend from foe is to read your master's body language."
Balko goes on to apply his observation to police dogs, specifically the way in which they are used in criminal investigations.

His conclusion is hard to dispute:
"When we think dogs are using their well-honed noses to sniff out drugs or criminal suspects, they may actually be displaying a more recently evolved trait: an urgent desire to please their masters, coupled with the ability to read their cues."
But Balko notes that there is a problem with all of this:
"[A] dog barking or sitting may be responding not to a smell but to his handler's hunch about a suspect's guilt."
It seem doubtful that any court, let alone the current Supreme Court would consider the appeal of a conviction based on these parameters.

Photograph by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish

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