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Does Bo Know He’s Top Dog?


Scroll to the bottom of this article to learn:

Why Do We Love Pets?


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Does Bo Know He’s Top Dog?
 
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
MEET THE PRESS

By DOUGLAS QUENQUA
Published: April 15, 2009
SOONER or later, someone is going to ask Bo, the 6-month-old Portuguese water dog who moved into the White House this week, if he knows the answer to a simple question: Who’s a good boy?

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Related
One Obama Search Ends With a Puppy Named Bo (April 13, 2009)
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Times Topics: Bo (Dog) | White House Pets
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Stephen Jaffe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
George Bush's Barney.

The question will of course be rhetorical, since Bo, whose raison d’être is to be furry and sweet, has significantly fewer performance expectations than his master. But it will by no means be idle, at least not to the psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers and kissy-face dog owners who for centuries have pondered the mysteries of canine consciousness. What, they ask, does a creature that lives to chew shoes and chase tennis balls really know about himself and his surroundings?

These questions are intriguing enough when applied to household pets — do they know why they’re not allowed on the couch? That we are coming home again? That the houseguests do not like to be sniffed and jumped on? — but downright trippy when it comes to dogs like Bo. All of a sudden, photographers shoulder one another aside to snap his picture, and the president of the United States scampers behind him.

Does Bo wonder, in whatever way he might be capable, what all the fuss is about? Does he know he’s the most famous dog in the world?

Yes — or he soon will, said Cecelia Ruggles, a Connecticut dog breeder who owns Stump, the Sussex spaniel who won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club show this year. She is also an owner of J. R., a bichon frisé who won Westminster in 2001, and several other champions.

“Oh, they know they’re famous, and they definitely get an attitude,” she said.

Like many people in the dog business, Ms. Ruggles takes a fairly anthropomorphic view of her animals’ cognitive abilities. “What distinguishes show dogs from other dogs is that they realize what’s going on, they know what they’re doing,” she said. “That’s what makes them who they are.”

J. R., for instance, knows how to make an impressive entrance at a press conference. “He waves his paws — it’s his signature,” Ms. Ruggles said. “It’s not something we taught him to do, it’s just something he does.”

But many dog owners are quick to tell stories about the precocity of their pets (often, long after the interest of the listener has waned), and skeptics chalk these tricks up to personality rather than brains. Even people who have studied the intelligence of dogs are doubtful that Bo has any clue he is an international media star.

“No,” declared Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and the co-author of “What Do Dogs Know?” “Dogs don’t know fame.”

What dogs do know, said Professor Coren, is their position within their social group, whether they are at the top or the bottom of their pack.

“They know about comfort, and they know how much they can demand and get away with,” he said. So with the first family treating him like royalty for the time being, “that might be equivalent to fame. He might think he has groupies.”

By that standard, Bo’s perception of his surroundings won’t be all that different from any other well-pampered family dog, he said.

“I’m certain there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of dogs who are owned by blue-collar workers who really feel that they are extremely special,” Professor Coren said.

Based on the behavior of previous four-legged White House occupants, it is hard to draw too many conclusions. During the George W. Bush presidency, Barney the Scottish terrier had his own Web page on [sign in to see URL] (which he shared with the Bushes’ other dog, Miss Beazley), and showed his gratitude by biting a Reuters reporter during the administration’s waning days. Socks and Buddy, the Clintons’ cat and dog, drew enough mail that Hillary Rodham Clinton assembled a book of letters, though Socks’s nastiness to Buddy got him gifted to Betty Currie when the Clintons left the White House.

Perhaps a better role model for Bo was Millie the springer spaniel, who not only “dictated” a book to her owner, Barbara Bush, but also gave birth to a camera-ready litter of puppies.

The idea that a dog could tell a red carpet from a housebreaking pad may sound far-fetched. For centuries, however, the mysteries of animal awareness have occupied some of mankind’s most respected thinkers.

Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Catholic philosopher, believed that animals possessed just enough consciousness that people should spare them outright abuse, if not the frying pan. René Descartes, who divided the world into two distinct substances, mind and matter, said that animals were purely mechanical beings that lacked an inner life (a classification that rings hollow to anyone who has heard the noise a beagle makes when you step on its tail). Darwin, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant also tried, unconvincingly, to wrap their heads around animal minds.

But canine cognition has become a serious science in the past few decades. More or less.

Starting in the late 1990s, Marc Bekoff, then a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, used his dog, Jethro, to conduct a landmark study he called “The Yellow Snow Project.”



“For five winters I collected piles of yellow snow on the path where I walk my dog in the mountains outside of Boulder,” he said. “Then I would move them along the bike path and watch what Jethro did.”

“He basically spent a longer time sniffing the other dogs’ urine than his own,” Mr. Bekoff said.



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Apr/22/2009, 7:53 am Link to this post  
 
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Re: Does Bo Know He’s Top Dog?


Professor Coren, who has studied Mr. Bekoff’s work (animal psychology is a tight-knit field), said that the yellow snow experiment offered proof that dogs have a sense of themselves versus other dogs. “It’s the first level of consciousness, knowing that you are there and a separate entity from everyone else,” Professor Coren said.

His own claim to fame is a series of tests conducted in the early 1990s that measured how many sounds, signals and gestures dogs could comprehend. He concluded that the average dog had roughly the same cognitive abilities as a 2-year-old human, a finding that is now commonly cited among pet owners.

“It’s helpful because when dealing with a dog, you can ask yourself, ‘What would I expect of a 2-year-old kid?’ ” he said.

Still, no matter how many pointy-headed tests are dreamed up, there will always be pet owners who believe their dogs possess the magical ability to apprehend their larger place in the world.

“People love to humanize their dogs,” said Mathilde DeCagny, the Hollywood trainer who worked on “Marley & Me.” “But Bo is not walking in the White House right now thinking, ‘I scored!’ ”

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Some animal rights advocates have criticized the Obamas for adopting a dog from a private breeder rather than from a shelter. But the choice somehow seems less cruel once you remove the suggestion of Oliver Twist-like emotional despair. “I have gotten so many e-mails today from people saying it’s too bad they didn’t get a mutt from the pound who would know that he is special,” Mr. Bekoff said.

“But come on,” he laughed. “Bo doesn’t know that, and neither would a pound dog.”



Note: Why Do We Love Pets?

The presence of pets activates in us two primitive psychological defense mechanisms: projection and narcissism.

Projection is a defense mechanism intended to cope with internal or external stressors and emotional conflict by attributing to another person or object (such as a pet) - usually falsely - thoughts, feelings, wishes, impulses, needs, and hopes deemed forbidden or unacceptable by the projecting party.

In the case of pets, projection works through anthropomorphism: we attribute to animals our traits, behavior patterns, needs, wishes, emotions, and cognitive processes. This perceived similarity endears them to us and motivates us to care for our pets and cherish them.

But, why do people become pet-owners in the first place?

Caring for pets comprises equal measures of satisfaction and frustration. Pet-owners often employ a psychological defense mechanism - known as "cognitive dissonance" - to suppress the negative aspects of having pets and to deny the unpalatable fact that raising pets and caring for them may be time consuming, exhausting, and strains otherwise pleasurable and tranquil relationships to their limits.

Pet-ownership is possibly an irrational vocation, but humanity keeps keeping pets. It may well be the call of nature. All living species reproduce and most of them parent. Pets sometimes serve as surrogate children and friends. Is this maternity (and paternity) by proxy proof that, beneath the ephemeral veneer of civilization, we are still merely a kind of beast, subject to the impulses and hard-wired behavior that permeate the rest of the animal kingdom? Is our existential loneliness so extreme that it crosses the species barrier?

There is no denying that most people want their pets and love them. They are attached to them and experience grief and bereavement when they die, depart, or are sick. Most pet-owners find keeping pets emotionally fulfilling, happiness-inducing, and highly satisfying. This pertains even to unplanned and initially unwanted new arrivals.

Could this be the missing link? Does pet-ownership revolve around self-gratification? Does it all boil down to the pleasure principle?

Pet-keeping may, indeed, be habit forming. Months of raising pups and cubs and a host of social positive reinforcements and expectations condition pet-owners to do the job. Still, a living pet is nothing like the abstract concept. Pets wail, soil themselves and their environment, stink, and severely disrupt the lives of their owners. Nothing too enticing here.

If you eliminate the impossible, what is left - however improbable - must be the truth. People keep pets because it provides them with narcissistic supply.

A Narcissist is a person who projects a (false) image unto others and uses the interest this generates to regulate a labile and grandiose sense of self-worth. The reactions garnered by the narcissist - attention, unconditional acceptance, adulation, admiration, affirmation - are collectively known as "narcissistic supply". The narcissist treats pets as mere instruments of gratification.

Infants go through a phase of unbridled fantasy, tyrannical behavior, and perceived omnipotence. An adult narcissist, in other words, is still stuck in his "terrible twos" and is possessed with the emotional maturity of a toddler. To some degree, we are all narcissists. Yet, as we grow, we learn to empathize and to love ourselves and others.

This edifice of maturity is severely tested by pet-ownership.

Pets evoke in their keepers the most primordial drives, protective, animalistic instincts, the desire to merge with the pet and a sense of terror generated by such a desire (a fear of vanishing and of being assimilated). Pets engender in their owners an emotional regression.

The owners find themselves revisiting their own childhood even as they are caring for their pets. The crumbling of decades and layers of personal growth is accompanied by a resurgence of the aforementioned early infancy narcissistic defenses. Pet-keepers - especially new ones - are gradually transformed into narcissists by this encounter and find in their pets the perfect sources of narcissistic supply, euphemistically known as love. Really it is a form of symbiotic codependence of both parties.

Even the most balanced, most mature, most psychodynamically stable of pet-owners finds such a flood of narcissistic supply irresistible and addictive. It enhances his or her self-confidence, buttresses self esteem, regulates the sense of self-worth, and projects a complimentary image of the parent to himself or herself. It fast becomes indispensable.

The key to our determination to have pets is our wish to experience the same unconditional love that we received from our mothers, this intoxicating feeling of being adored without caveats, for what we are, with no limits, reservations, or calculations. This is the most powerful, crystallized form of narcissistic supply. It nourishes our self-love, self worth and self-confidence. It infuses us with feelings of omnipotence and omniscience. In these, and other respects, pet-ownership is a return to infancy.


---
Encyclopedia of Narcissism and Psychopathy

http://samvak.tripod.com/siteindex.html

Buy 16 books and video lectures on 3 DVDs about narcissists, psychopaths, and abusive relationships

http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com/thebook.html
Apr/22/2009, 7:53 am Link to this post  
 


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