Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/February 1894/The Psychology of a Dog

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IN his recent work on Justice, Mr. Herbert Spencer turns a new light upon old questions in ethics, by tracing the roots of ethical principles to the animal community. There is something wonderful in the way certain animals form a society and exemplify the egoistic and altruistic sentiments of justice working in harmony. With all their selfish quarrels and contests, the compact of animals throws many an attempt at human combination into the shade.

But such co-operation by limitation and adaptation is only possible where there is power of perception, thinking, emotion, and purpose. Therefore, we must either assume or constantly prove, until demonstration is secured, that some animals, like human beings, think, reason, and feel, and execute intelligent purposes. Do they?

It is in the line of answer to this question that I introduce the subject of the following sketch, and record some careful observations I have made of the mental operations of my subhuman dog. I am unable to gratify the curiosity of the fancier touching the group into which Toots would be placed in a bench show. I suspect he is a somewhat mixed individual. He has the pointed nose, large brain-capsule, small drooping ears, and rough coat of the collie, with the short legs of the dachshund, and weighs about ten pounds. His mother was left by an English gentleman in charge of a scissors-grinder in San Diego. She was stone-blind. Her most remarkable feat was a return to her home by the lead of her nose, after having been transported to a place six miles away.

The mental development of this dog so closely resembles the unfolding of the human intellect during infancy, that it will be well to bring the two sets of phenomena into comparison. Let us break the thread of this narrative long enough to refer to some mental characteristics of the baby.

A very old objection to the possession, by animals, of mind higher than that manifested in instinct is founded in an equally old fallacy, that thinking is impossible separate from an acquaintance with the language of speech. Particularly is it urged that general ideas, or concepts, are impossible without words to represent them. If we think only in words, then dogs, who have no words, can not think. Even what we call memory in animals has been restricted to mere "association" by those orthodox philosophers from whom some of us have learned our lessons. It has not been without a struggle against prejudice that we are able to give the dog his due.

Prof. Preyer, in his excellent work on The Development of the Intellect, has, to my thought, proved conclusively that the baby, even before it has learned to speak, thinks and forms general ideas. By carefully registered observations, extending through a period of forty months of infant life, the Jena psychologist finds that, so early as the second month, the baby begins the "association of memory-images." The possession of this primitive faculty is proved not only by many examples of infants who in due time learn to speak, but by the most remarkable practical demonstration in the development of deaf-mutes.

Nothing further could be desired in the way of positive proof of the power to generalize, in the first years of life, than that the deaf-mute expresses the concept "red" by touching his red lips, and then pointing to the redness of the sunset sky. From a wide induction of such facts. Prof. Preyer safely concludes that "many concepts are, without any learning of words whatever, plainly expressed and logically combined with one another, and their correctness is proved by the conduct of any and every untaught child born deaf." And he further sums up his case by declaring that "it was not language that generated the intellect; it is the intellect that formerly invented language; and even now the newborn human being brings into the world far more intellect than talent for language."

We may now proceed with Toots, since we have found for him common footing with the speechless human baby. The necessity of words to thinking will not be an a priori bar to the proper interpretation of his acts. Mere tricks acquired by dogs are of small value for our purpose, since they may be referred to reflex action. Our concern is rather with those spontaneous and self-directed acts of perception, adaptation, combination, and invention which can not be performed without the exercise of genuine intellectual power. At an early period Toots discovered an instinctive hostility to mice, moles, and black cats. His puppyhood was passed in company with a gray kitten, whom he treated with respect and affection, never failing to impress a kiss on its nose when morning came, or after temporary separation. His association of mice, moles, and black cats, and his discrimination in favor of light-colored cats, suggest a perception of color, if not a concept, which his actions have rendered unmistakable. I took him to the house of a neighbor one day, where he fell in with a litter of white-and-gray kittens, entirely strange to him, and he treated them with the utmost kindness. A day or two afterward he was introduced to a litter of black kittens, when, had he been permitted, he would have torn them in pieces. In this idea of "black" it will hardly be claimed that Toots has an abstract concept of color, but has not he a vague concept such as a baby has of "red," not redness? Otherwise, why is it that he entertains an equally intense aversion to black dogs?

The observing powers of this witty animal, and the resulting inventions and devices, have experienced spontaneous development in company with his human friends. He possesses in a rare degree the power of laughing, or, more correctly, of smiling. In a high state of pleasurable emotion he parts his lips, shows his teeth, and wrinkles the skin of his cheeks, so as to leave a corrugated appearance, like the permanent expression of the nose in the ribbed-nose or mandrill baboon. He reserves this laugh for his friends, however, when he knows that they are returning from an absence of considerable length, and never bestows it for a brief separation, unless called upon to laugh. His sign and vocal language is of his own adaptation. For a drink of water he has one combination; another for a request to be let out of the house, and still a different one to pass out at the gate into the street. He instantly observes any change in the dress of his three mistresses, which change he assumes as a preparation for an outing, and makes a corresponding request. The putting on of a skullcap by his master brings from him a mild petition to go out into the yard; but when the tall hat appears, and a cane in hand, he runs through his extended vocabulary of freedom, for this means a walk abroad. Are not these acts precisely those of the baby during the primitive period of its thinking life? And are they not due to a mental process which in a child we always ascribe to thinking?

Toots's perception of ideas, even thoughts, conveyed in sentences uttered in ordinary conversation, surpasses anything I have ever observed in dogs, except in Scotch collies. If, in the course of ordinary family chat, the question is interpolated, "Do you want to go out?" he bounds to his feet; if in the same tone he is told, "You can not go out," he takes his disappointment without further demonstration, though no other words or gestures of command are added. Even while asleep, if the word "cat" is used in the current of conversation, he remains undisturbed; but utter the combination "black cat," and he rushes to the window to take an observation. The examples thus far given can not be referred to automatic or reflex action; they belong to the operation of cerebration, and involve ideation, classification, and judgment—in other words, thinking. At least such would be the conclusion were they the acts of a two-year-old baby.

Very early in his history Toots was taught to sit on his haunches, receiving bits of food as a reward for the performance. It was observed that he spontaneously raised his hands, as an additional expression of desire. This act was encouraged and developed by taking hold of his arms and waving them vertically, until the whole combined action became habitual, and was rendered in answer to the command, "Wave your hands!" After a long period of practice in sitting posture with hand-waving, under various circumstances and in most fascinating fashion, he disclosed the power of imitation. When held upright in the arms of another, and when already satisfied with food, I waved my hands before him, and he at once copied the same motion, and is always ready to do so in answer to this gesture.

Here appears to be a case of imitation, pure and simple, that calls for a reasonable explanation. Prof. Preyer says: "In order to imitate, one must first perceive through the senses; secondly, have an idea of what has been perceived; thirdly, execute a movement correspondent to the idea."[1] And further, it may be added, since a volition is involved, there must be a consciousness of self, or a formation of the concept "I." All this is granted in the case of a child; why not also in the case of a dog?

Scarcely anything is lacking in the mental furniture of this psychological dog to make him the equal of a baby two years old, except thinking in words; and who can prove that he is destitute of this faculty, although not possessing articulate speech? The other evening, while I was giving my plants a drink, he came to me several times, asking to have the gate opened. Not caring to lay down the hose, I paid little heed to his teasings, and he determined to compass his purpose in another way. To the front door he went, and, pressing it, found it not latched, but requiring some force to throw it open. Then he backed out the full width of the veranda, and running, threw his weight so violently against the door as to drive it open. Very soon he reappeared with his mistress, to whom he had made his supplication, and she, without knowing of his failure with me, opened the gate and gave the little fellow his coveted freedom.

It should be explained, in regard to the wit shown in opening a heavy or sticking door, that Toots acquired his experience with a fly door closed by the reaction of a spring. He found by experiments that if with his fore paws he pressed this door open just far enough to emit his body, it would spring to and pinch his tail; and that by retreating and running the whole length of a small entry he could impart momentum enough to open the door wide and thus clear his tail, at the same time letting out a dependent companion. This act, I am inclined to think, is a little smarter than is usual in a two-year-old child.

The skill thus acquired is regularly applied by Toots in opening the door of the kitchen, in which his bed is made, when he proceeds with the first morning sunbeam to visit his friends in the sleeping apartments of the house. The door is closed but is not latched, to enable the dog to open it without help. Even in this condition it is moved with difficulty, owing to its friction on the sill—a difficulty intentionally allowed to remain for the purposes of my experiments.

The first effort of Toots is to press upon the door, to find whether it is fastened. As will be seen, he has come to apply this test as the result of his own experience. If the door is unlatched, he goes to the opposite side of the room and runs, throwing himself against the panels with the whole weight of his body. This act he repeats five times, after each impact retreating to the opposite side of the room to get a fresh start. With the sixth attack the passage is forced, and he scampers away with his companion, a dog with no wit at all, and is happy. More recently he has found that he can decide whether the door is fastened or not by quietly pressing his fore paws against it. Before he had adopted this test, on one night I fastened the door. He pounded it with his running catapult precisely six times; then gave up and cried for help, which was ready at hand. Such repetition of an adaptive act requires no analysis to make its psychological value apparent. I have recorded another still more interesting act in the comedy of the kitchen door, which act raises the question whether animals are capable of emotions of a religious nature. Romanes claims to have proved that some animals exercise all the human emotions, "with the exception of those which refer to religion, moral sense, and perception of the sublime."[2] On the other hand, Mr. John Fiske makes a category for Toots. In discussing the "primeval ghost-world," he quotes from Nature as follows: "A Skye terrier accustomed to sit on his haunches when wanting favors from his master would also sit up before the mantelpiece before his rubber ball. This illustrates Auguste Comte's remark that dogs, apes, and elephants may have a few fetichistic notions."[3]

It is a habit of Toots, when alone and occasion requires, to perform his sitting and hand-waving supplications to inanimate things as if they were capable of volition. He has been discovered thus paying his addresses to a rubber doll, beseeching it to descend from the mantelpiece for his benefit. But as to rubber playthings, there is reason to believe that he conceives them to possess real life on account of the resumption of their form by elastic reaction after they are pressed. The same address, however, is made by him to a door he can not open, or to a glass of water he can not reach or ought not to have without asking, when no human friend is present to serve him.

So also when he failed to force open the kitchen door that was fastened, there followed his last effort a silence that led me to conclude it was the little fellow's moment of prayer. Accordingly, at the right instant, I thrust open the door, when I found that he had been sitting up before the unyielding object and waving his suppliant hands with a genuine earnestness that would shame the hollow formality of many a human worshiper.

The question naturally arises, Does Toots believe in ghosts? And, if so, have we not found in him the evidence of an incipient fetichism, an inspiration of rude religious emotion and a glimmering perception of the sublime?


From observations made at two Prussian stations and Teneriffe in 1889, 1890, and 1891, showing slight and continuous changes of position of the plane of the horizon, Dr. von Rebeur Paachnitz has concluded that the relatively rigid surface of the eartb is subject to a movement of rising and falling like the ocean movement that produces the tides. The amplitude of the observations is very slight, but the apparatus used made it clearly perceptible. The direction of the plumb line also points to a daily disturbance, which is attributed, in conjecture, to solar radiation. A third kind of movement may be referred to distant earthquakes.
  1. The Senses and the Will, p. 282.
  2. Mental Evolution of Man.
  3. Myths and Myth Makers.