Dog Days of Summer

Heat wave after heat wave has rolled over us these past few weeks, and we can be sure to swelter through a few more before Jack Frost chases away these dog days of summer.

In light of these dog days, we spoke with Irene Pepperberg, a research associate in psychology at Harvard University who has taught Animal Cognition at Harvard Extension School. While she is best known for her work with birds, particularly a parrot named Alex, she humored us with a few questions about man’s best friend and his fellow creatures.

Do animals have their own thoughts?

Dean Shinagel's dog Quincy

Very likely, but their thoughts may be quite different from ours. Most non-humans probably think in “pictures.” As scientists, we are trying to figure out just what kinds of thoughts animals have and how they process information. One of the rationales for teaching animals to communicate with humans via various symbolic systems is to be able to question them in ways similar to how we question young children, to figure out nonhuman thought process and see how different or similar they may be to humans.

What role do imitation and repetition play in levels of animal cognition?

Interestingly, imitation was initially considered a low-level skill because it was conflated with mindless mimicry (repetition without understanding). We now know that imitation is a complex skill that requires detailed analysis of the individual actions that are being imitated and analysis of the order in which to reproduce the actions. We’ll spend quite a bit of time discussing imitation and the cognitive skills involved in the course.

Is it easier for some species to develop or hone new mental skills than others? And what are some of the key factors in species with more robust cognitive abilities?

Good questions, but we don’t really know the answers yet. In terms of developing or honing new skills, the answer probably has more to do with figuring out how to access the mental skills. Depending on what sense we use (i.e., scent discrimination in dogs), what training and testing techniques we use, we can find or not find various abilities.

In general, more social species seem to have more robust cognitive abilities. Jolly in 1966 and Humphrey in 1975 proposed that skills used to mediate social interactions, particularly in long-lived species that have recurrent interactions, would be adapted for general cognitive processing. We still aren’t fully sure that these two scientists were correct, but obviously non-humans that are predisposed for social interactions are easier for humans to study.

You hear stories in the news about dogs alerting their owners to a fire in the middle of the night. How is this ability to recognize danger and know to alert others about it possible?

Many non-humans have senses that are far more acute than ours. Dogs, for example, have exquisite senses of smell and hear in higher ranges than we do. Most animals are keenly aware of their environments and changes because in the wild, changes can be a matter of life and death. So even though humans have bred dogs for various traits for thousands of years, dogs can still perceive what is unusual in an environment. Some dogs will then alert their “pack” members—their human family.

Why can we talk with parrots, but not with pigeons?

A full answer would take many paragraphs, but the short answer is twofold. In terms of just physical ability, parrots have a very special vocal tract—one that differs even from most songbirds—that enables them to reproduce almost any sound they hear. In terms of cognitive processing, parrots seem to have more of the brain area that is needed for such processing.

How can the average dog, cat, or bird owner communicate more effectively with their pet?

Puppy snoozing in the sun

As a start, pay attention to all their actions, and see which specific actions relate to specific events in the environment. You can then get an idea about how the animal is commenting upon what is going on or trying to attract attention to its needs. For bird owners, labeling every interaction may encourage the bird to associate human labels with the events and then use the labels appropriately. While that’s not a guarantee, many pet birds do pick up some labels that way; I use specific training techniques—a modeling system involving two humans—for my birds.

What is the current state of this discipline? Are we still scratching the surface of animal cognition, and what potential do you see?

Endless potential. It just depends on how much grant support scientists can get to do the studies and how much time and energy we humans are willing to invest! The same is true of teaching animals to communicate with humans, or to decode their natural communication systems. Right now, grant support is extremely difficult to obtain in the US, but places like Austria are really supporting this type of work.

Robin replied:

As one who lives with multiple cats, this report confirms what I have known for years: of course we communicate! My cat Evie has her own special sign language and a vocabulary of distinct coos and meows, as does my deaf cat Ingrid. The cats also have distinct ways of communicating among themselves. And because cats have distinct personalities and have distinct preferences for their companionship, whether it is for humans or other cats, the question shouldn't ask IF they have thoughts, but how extensive is their intellect.