Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
three-friendly-happy-playing-dogs-in-summer-park-german-shepherd-american-staffordshire-terrier-and-french-bulldog-holding-one-stick-different-dog-breeds-have-fun-together-stockpack-adobe-stock
Three friendly happy playing dogs in summer park. German shepherd, american staffordshire terrier and french bulldog holding one stick. Different dog breeds have fun together.
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock

Claim: We’ve Shown That Dogs Can Form “Abstract Concepts”

It’s a good idea to be skeptical when any such claim is followed up with the assertion that humans “aren’t that cognitively unique after all.”

University of Buffalo researchers reported recently on a study of three pet dogs known to them that they had taught to “ponder their past”:

Dogs are capable of learning the instruction “do that again,” and can flexibly access memories of their own recent actions—cognitive abilities they were not known to possess, according to the results of a recent University at Buffalo study.

“We found that dogs could be trained to repeat specific actions on cue, and then take what they’d learned and apply it to actions they had never been asked to repeat,” says Allison Scagel, Ph.D., the study’s corresponding author, who was a UB graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the time of the research. “Our findings showed that they were able to apply the concept of repetition to new situations.

Bert Gambini, University at Buffalo, “Dogs can do more than just tricks, they can even be asked to ponder their past” at Phys.org (July 14, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.
funny boy and beagle dog are watching laptop on sofa in room

Nothing about this should come as any surprise. Dogs learning to hunt rabbits or escape through the fence must often apply skills they learned in one situation to another.

But then we are told,

“More generally, we found evidence that dogs are capable of forming abstract concepts.”

Historically, there has been a notion that conscious awareness of past personal experiences is the exclusive domain of humans, but recent research isn’t supporting that conclusion, according to Scagel.

“Our study shows that dogs are capable of conceptualization, placing them in an expanding category of other animals that includes bottlenose dolphins and chimpanzees.”

Bert Gambini, University at Buffalo, “Dogs can do more than just tricks, they can even be asked to ponder their past” at Phys.org (July 14, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.

No, wait. “Forming abstract concepts?”

Here’s what the dogs actually did, according to the researchers:

Traditional dog training is cue and response. When dogs hear or see a trained cue, they respond with a behavior associated with that cue. For a baseline, the researchers started training the dogs in that fashion, with simple cues like spin in a circle, lie down, or walk around an object.

The dogs then learned a separate repeat cue (the word “again” accompanied by a hand gesture), which instructed them to reproduce the action they had just completed. To assess whether the dogs had actually learned a general concept of repeating recent actions, they were asked to repeat novel actions that they had never been asked to repeat before. Despite never being trained to repeat these actions, the dogs passed this test.

Bert Gambini, University at Buffalo, “Dogs can do more than just tricks, they can even be asked to ponder their past” at Phys.org (July 14, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.

They’re well-trained dogs. They knew to “repeat” whatever action they had just completed when they were told to repeat it. But again, “forming abstract concepts”? No. Abstractions are entities like social justice, the square root of minus 1, time travel, or for that matter, theories of animal intelligence. Dogs don’t think that way; neither do bottlenose dolphins or chimpanzees.

The real message is saved for last:

“This is an important step toward a greater understanding of how other species form abstract concepts,” says Scagel. “And we’re learning that humans aren’t that cognitively unique after all.”

Bert Gambini, University at Buffalo, “Dogs can do more than just tricks, they can even be asked to ponder their past” at Phys.org (July 14, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.

No? How be next time the team tests the dogs on the square root of minus 1? We are left wondering just what is the point of claims that “humans aren’t that cognitively unique after all.”

The researchers’ assertion is nonsense if treated as fact. Yet it is disquietingly unlikely to be called out. It’s best described as a non-fact fact. Perhaps that’s because it is grandfathered by a tenet of promissory materialism: Either humans don’t really reason or else dogs do.

With enough casuistry applied, the obvious fact — the humans are doing the research and writing the papers and the dogs are just responding to commands — will be overlooked. Trouble is, those of us who are not invested in promissory materialism know that dogs are not just furry people.


You may also wish to read:

Do animals truly grieve when other animals die? The dog Hachikō’s lifelong devoted vigil at the train station is touching in part because he could not know that his human friend had actually died. So do animals grieve? Yes indeed. Do they grieve the same way humans do? No, because, for better or worse, they can’t. There is no turning back from the gift of reason.

and

The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Claim: We’ve Shown That Dogs Can Form “Abstract Concepts”