Through-Lines and Dogs

Maxim 1. A person takes it that things are as they seem unless they have reason enough to think otherwise. Peter Ossorio

You can trust a dog with your life…but not your lunch. Stephen Huneck

A through-line description is, paradigmatically, the description of a non-contiguous sequence of a person’s courses of action as having a shared significance. For me, that’s sufficient formulation. Greg Colvin

A friend asked what through-line descriptions I could give of my dogs. Dogs are impulsive. Maybe not the highly trained, but the dogs I know are. A student of mine remarked that dogs are like children with impulse control issues. She went on to suggest cats “are sort of on the spectrum”. Certainly my dogs could do a better job at restraint and the cats I love seem a bit indifferent.

What follows are thoughts about dogs and their personable ways. I’ll use the Descriptive Psychological Person Concept, the interdependent concepts of Individual Person, Behavior, Language, and World. I’m going to make a point of invoking person qualities where they seem appropriate. I’m aware of the hazards of being overly anthropomorphic. We might argue about this.

I think no one in their right mind doubts dogs have personalities. If you know a dog, you recognize a character. While never knowing exactly what a dog will do, we come to know what they find significant. They sometimes surprise us, but they mostly act in-character in their dogged ways.

I am certain dogs are intentional actors, aware and deliberate. If you seriously doubt this, my bet is that you relate to them differently than I do. (And that’s too bad. Here, I’m thinking “I to Dog” akin to “I to Thou”, a contrast to “I to It”. My dogs are family members, not property. This is a topic for a different time).

That dogs have personal characteristics and engage in intentional action, paradigmatic intentional action, carries the logical requirement that their behavior involves courses of action with significance. Their lives have through-lines organized by what they hold important. I think this is the case for all animals. The through-lines descriptive of humans may seem more complex but that claim may be an artifact of a failure to recognize the nuanced sensitivities and forms of life that matter to our canine companions. Obviously they hear and smell beyond my competence to judge what they appreciate. These sensitivities inform their natural needs and can provide significant information outside of my perspective. Why do they look for dead worms to roll in with such obvious delight?

All personal characteristics develop from an individual’s prior capacities (e.g., in-born and developed sensitivities and body based needs) and their intervening experiences. Dogs and humans alike find themselves in an environment of restricted possibilities where they find, create, and practice their individual ways. Dogs are usually more restricted than humans. We keep them this way.

I think it is appropriate to think of a dog as a sort of person. For this to make sense I need to explain how I’m using the concept. By person I mean an individual whose history is, paradigmatically, a history of Deliberate Action in a Dramaturgical Pattern, a pattern that makes sense the way story do. A person’s actions follow from their individual characteristics and their circumstances, reflecting what they try to achieve given their values. Having values means being able to want some state of affairs over others. This in turn produces the patterns I call through-lines, a form of description that identifies an individual’s significant concerns. Along with the ability to engage in deliberate acts, paradigmatic persons also have language, an ability to deliberately share symbolic representations corresponding to their world, states, and practices.

Deliberate Action is a form of behavior in which a person (a) engages in an intentional or goal directed action, (b) is Cognizant of that, and (c) has chosen to do that. A person is not always engaged in a deliberate action but has the ability to do so. A human being is an individual who is both a person and a specimen of Homo sapiens. This last sentence carries the reminder that non-human individuals could also be persons. By paradigmatic I am referring to the method of paradigm case formulation that allows for variations and transformations in the paradigm, including the deletion of elements. Paradigmatic refers to a full or undoubted case, a case where all competent judges likely agree. Some judges may find some attributes more essential than others, but by starting with a paradigm where we agree, it’s simple when elements are transformed or deleted, to know where we disagree. Dogs, to me, are deficit case persons.

Intentional action involves something an individual recognizes and wants, and knows how to achieve. This corresponds to a performance, an observable implementation of trying to achieve what desired. Intentional action has significance, grounded in the actor’s intrinsic, done-for-it’s own-sake, values. The reasons for an intentional action are ultimately or finally justified by something intrinsic. (In a baseball game, the pitcher by throwing a pitch, is trying to strike out the batter, by trying to strike out the batter, he is trying to win the game, by trying to win the game, he is doing what baseball players do if they are actually playing baseball.) Keep this in mind, because a problem in understanding the behavior of dogs is we can’t simply ask, “what are you trying to do by doing that?”. Nor can we ask, “what didn’t you do?” This last question makes it difficult to judge if the behavior is chosen, i.e., deliberate. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t deliberate, it just means it’s hard to gather the evidence that comes with a verbal description of choice. Choices are easiest to see when the speaker can tell us what option wasn’t selected. We will return to this since some reasons for behavior, especially those that involve ethical or aesthetic values, require the ability to engage in deliberate action, the ability to choose not to go down a particular path. Choice can involve renunciation, “the high road or the low road?”

Significance, as I am employing it in it’s Descriptive Psychological sense, is grounded by something intrinsic. Humans, paradigmatic Persons, are able to successfully justify an act as significant given their intrinsic and specific Hedonic, Prudent, Ethical/Moral and Aesthetic concerns. I’ll return to this in a bit. I have no trouble arguing dogs have hedonic and prudent concerns. Clearly they’re pleasure seeking, pain avoiding, and self-interested. I don’t doubt they are cognizant and deliberate, but I’d have trouble making a strong case that dogs have ethical and aesthetic values, even though I think some might. I treat my dogs as deficit case persons, worthy of respect, but they’re dogs so I don’t trust them with my lunch (but then again, I might not trust you either).

Do dogs have an ethical sense? A 2008 study in The Proceeding of the American Academy of Sciences found that dogs respond to unfair treatment, cooperating less when they witness a partner dog getting a bigger share of food. Since I don’t know of a case where a dog has acted to make sure another dog gets a fair share, this seems more a matter of self-interest than an ethical concern with fair distribution. They only really care if they are at the short end of the stick. But then again, I can’t speak for what the dog is actually considering.

Dogs are clearly less competent than humans in language use, although I don’t write them off completely. (Another point to argue). Their limited verbal repertory along with the importance they give hedonics and prudence, with an apparent lack of ethical and aesthetic perspective, keeps them deficit cases in my book. But here are all sorts of reasons to argue. I argue with myself about this.

Some Limitations to a Dog’s Through-Lines

Dependency, rapid maturation, and an extraordinary awareness of smell and sound, inform and shape a dog’s all too short life. In the span of a human growing from infancy to adolescence, most dogs live their entire lives. By the time a human has just begun to understand what they find significant, a dog has come and gone. This makes for shorter through-lines. As a human with a limited ability to appreciate the nuanced world my dog senses, the through-line descriptions I offer are less complex and differentiated than those I construct for a human I know well. My limited appreciation limits my competence to adequately describe what they find significant. This, I suspect, is also partly why dogs are sometimes described in ways we talk about children. Their time spans are similar and dogs, like children, are domesticated, bred and reared selectively to fit into the community of humans. Dogs and children are socially shaped by each other and their adult masters. It troubles me to write this way about children.

Since children and domestic animals are dependent on the support of a more mature human community, their through-lines, informed by their idiosyncratic discoveries, largely concern their standings with each other and with their keepers and providers. We watch them sort out whether to lead or follow, whether they’ve been individually recognized, and whether they’re in good standing. This and food seem front and center. Maybe more for dogs. By food I include the crap they constantly try to snap up and swallow.

The through-lines I can construct for my dogs are descriptions of how they manage their dependency and the imposed restrictions on their lives. Since through-lines are an observer’s construct, the descriptions I develop center on how I see them interact with me, each other, our family, neighbors, and the other dogs, strangers, and other animals encountered on walks.

The trick with describing their through-lines is finding a nuance that captures the pattern. So here’s some for the dogs I live with.

Hart, a dachshund rat terrier mix:

Tirelessly keeping his eye on the “ball”, he seeks potential allies incessantly imploring them to play his game so he can show off his varied moves and respond to acknowledgment.

Heedless of the other’s power and direction, he makes a show of a resistance to follow. Knowing he will eventually come along, he digs in his heel and delays any attempt to distract him from a mission to sniff and mark where he’s been.

Here’s two for Banjo, a dachshund lab:

“Following from ahead”, eager to please and connect, he constantly seeks the acknowledgment of others, following just enough to mutually reassure, so that he can return to secure solitude.

Disregarding the consequences, if it smells palatable, it’s to be gobbled. (Actually, this one works for both Banjo and Hart).

Not paradigmatic with language but very communicative, both dogs mix and string sounds, phatic and evocative, along with body gestures that convey meaning. My understanding of their intended meanings, varied and sometimes complex, is vindicated by my response. If I respond with what they want, they stop imploring. The signal to noise ratio seems largely signal. If there is grammar to what they convey, it is simple and conforms to the forms of life, the practices, that matter to them. It seems to me that if I keep my vocalizations short and relevant to their concerns, they mostly respond accordingly, unless they don’t want to. But that’s the case with everyone I deal with.

It is when I play with Banjo and Hart that I find reason to think they have a limited ethical and aesthetic perspective. Hart, at some point nightly, will stand in front of me, catch my eye, and bark. Then he’ll stare. Banjo will run in from the bedroom, check out the scene, and for reasons hard to fathom, remain or return to the bedroom where he rearranged the pillows and has snuck some item of my wife’s clothing, never mine. I usually try to ignore Hart because I have my own agenda. But if he can hold my eye, he’ll bark again, make a puppy whine and then turn his head to the mantle where his toys are almost hidden. He’ll try to catch my eye and when he does he points to the balls. He moves his eyes from mine to the mantle and eagerly waits. I know he wants to play.

If he’s caught me in the right mood, I take one of the squishy balls and toss it. Grounders, popups, fakes to the right or left. Gleeful mid-air catches and in-air toss backs. This goes on and on and on and on. When Hart makes a particularly artful catch he wiggles the way he does when excited and praised. He catches better than he throws, I’m lazy, so if he hasn’t tossed the ball right to me I’ll say something that amounts to “not close enough”. He’ll look at me again and if he wants to continue will nudge the ball closer. Sometimes he doesn’t want to give it back, especially if Banjo intrudes. Banjo, awkward with the game, mostly runs interference. If he can, instead of bringing it back to me, he’ll steal it and return to the bedroom inviting chase.

This is a game. It has shared rules of fair and foul, and the happy appreciation of the beauty of a well executed play. Seeing it this way, acting accordingly, makes it work.

Here’s links to “What is a Person? And how can we be sure?” , where I examine the question of non-human persons, and “The Person Concept”, the foundation of behavioral science.
And on the Descriptive concept of “through-lines“.

Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D

Through-Lines and Dogs was originally published @ Lessons in Psychology: Freedom, Liberation, and Reaction and has been syndicated with permission.

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