Canine Science is Better than Common Sense

We need canine science because common sense can lead us astray.

Why canine science is better than common sense. Photo shows Australian Shepherd

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Recently I wrote about why science matters to our dogs and cats, based on findings from Dr. Paige Jarreau’s research that suggests science blogs (like this one) may contribute to readers having a better knowledge of science.

I thought of this again recently because a comment I often see from readers – on any kind of science story on the internet – is "don’t we know this already? Isn’t it just common sense?"

I understand the comment because sometimes, when the findings of a study happen to line up with our existing beliefs, it can feel like science is just common sense. But common sense can easily hold conflicting views simultaneously. And common sense often leads us astray (even in our knowledge of basic physics, as illustrated by Peter Ellerton writing about why we can’t trust common sense but we can trust science).

We don’t have to look too far for examples relating to dogs and cats. We all know that dogs have excellent noses. But is a dog’s nose good enough to tell by smell alone which of two plates has more pieces of hot dog (Horowitz, Hecht and Dedrick, 2013)? We don’t know if we don’t test it. (Are you guessing yes or no before you click the link?)

Similarly, we often feel that our dogs are good at recognizing our emotions. But can a dog use a person’s emotional expression to tell them which of two boxes contains sausage, and which contains garlic (Buttelmann and Tomasello 2012)? In other words, can they tell the difference between happiness (displayed for the sausage) and disgust (displayed for garlic)?

Why canine science is better than common sense. Photo shows Siberian Husky puppy
Photo: Sunspace; top, Nastia Gomanova. Both Shutterstock

One thing you’ll notice about scientific studies like these are that hypotheses are very precise – not a broad, ‘can dogs recognize human emotion?’, but specific emotions and circumstances in which they are tested.

Common sense, let’s be honest, is usually rather broad and wishy-washy. (“Too many cooks spoil the broth.” How many cooks? What kind of broth? Which specific recipe? Are we really talking about cooks here? And did the dog's dinner get ruined?).

One example of how our common sense can lead us astray is in our expectations of dogs. How clever do you think your dog is in comparison to a human child?  If your answer is somewhere between 3 and 5 years old, you’re in company with many other people (Howell et al 2013).

Yes, dogs are amazing, but just think about what a 4 year old can do.  (I’m expecting my dogs to start talking at any moment…). Seriously, 4 year old children are amazing too.

So now we have to think about what we mean by clever. Generally intelligent, or clever in some specific ways? Chaser the Border Collie knows 1000 words, which I’m sure we’ll all agree is astonishingly clever. Julie Hecht explains what we mean by saying he ‘knows’  those words (not just the words but also categories like balls and frisbees!). But when it comes to our own dogs, what if we think they know a command but they don’t really?

Howell et al wrote of their results, “It is possible that, in some cases, dog owners believe that dogs are cognitively capable of more than they actually are and misconstrue normal dog behaviour as an attempt at ‘dominance’ or a stubborn lack of obedience.”

Which brings us round to dog training. What if we think our dog understands a command, but they don’t do it, so we blame them for being stubborn or misbehaving when really they don’t have a clue what we just asked them to do? We miss out on understanding our dog properly (and the chance to teach them the command), while the dog misses out on the chance to earn a treat.

Since dog training is unregulated, it means many dog trainers are relying on common sense instead of education, which unfortunately means some of them are using outdated aversive methods despite the AVSAB position statement on humane dog training methods  and the evidence on which it is based.

66% of people in Herron, Shofer and Reisner’s (2009) study said they used a choke or prong collar because it was recommended to them by a trainer. If only everyone understood that it is common sense not to do this.

If there are topics you would like to see covered on this blog, please let me know. 

If you like this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog calls it “The must-have guide to improving your dog’s life.” 

Buttelmann, D., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Can domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use referential emotional expressions to locate hidden food? Animal Cognition, 16 (1), 137-145 
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54 
Horowitz, A., Hecht, J., & Dedrick, A. (2013). Smelling more or less: Investigating the olfactory experience of the domestic dog Learning and Motivation, 44 (4), 207-217 
Howell, T., Toukhsati, S., Conduit, R., & Bennett, P. (2013). The Perceptions of Dog Intelligence and Cognitive Skills (PoDIaCS) Survey Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 8 (6), 418-424 

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