Do I want a dog? Or a robot?

It occurred to me after watching Spot, the robot dog from Boston Dynamics, perform several complex and independent tasks, that many people want a robot, not a sensitive, independent-minded, opinionated, sometimes naughty and obnoxious canine companion. I must admit, when I’m trying to train Annie a new, multi-step trick, there is something very seductive about the thought of clicking a button or moving a joystick, or even better–to preprogram her to do what I want, when I want. Also, a robot does not need to go out in the rain and wind to do its business, need daily training and mental stimulation (though it might need programming), or go for daily hikes (though as long as the hikes were less than the four-hour battery limit, Spot might be able to go for hikes, too). I could also turn off a robot when I wanted to read or write or watch the tube.

So why have a real dog? I think each of us has to answer that for ourselves. There is no doubt that dogs are a lot of work and a big responsibility when we invite them into our lives. But what we get is the opportunity to share our lives with another species we have, as humans, shared a bond with for thousands of years. One who is willing to learn our language, live in our culture, and spend years with us as individuals being our partners and companions. They read our emotions, learn our language, laugh with us, dream with us, and do our bidding because they choose to. They give us insights into their world of scent, expressing intense emotional responses to things we might not have noticed. They also love us, and scientists believe they are genetically bonded to us through thousands of years of evolution. And not only that, Dr. Stanley Coren, in an article in Psychology today, discusses a study that shows that dogs are not only able to empathize with us, but also to sympathize.

enjoy your dog being a dog:

  • Take time to watch your dog being a dog–playing, sleeping, problem solving, and learning.
  • Consider how remarkable it is that our dogs will do even one of the inane things we ask of them. We can’t explain to them why we ask them to “sit” or “down” or “come” like we can with a child. Dogs do our bidding either because we reward them or threaten them. They certainly don’t do things for us because there’s any logic to our demands. If the tables were turned, what would we think if they took us for a walk, thrust our heads to the ground and demanded “sniff”? I know I would be confused and irate. Our dogs are very tolerant!
  • Realize that the intelligence of dogs cannot be compared to ours or to a robot’s. Dogs have many abilities that we do not, all of which are classified as a type of intelligence: their sense of smell, their sense of hearing, their ability to herd, to track, to run and balance their bodies in activities such as playing Frisbee (kinesthetic intelligence), to hunt, to communicate, and to socialize.
  • Unlike us and the robots we have created, dogs are born with a complex body language which they use to communicate with the world around them in an ongoing flow of phrases.
  • Many dogs have remarkable speed and endurance compared to their size.
  • They can navigate their complex and intricate social structures and have fascinating social interactions with their own species as well as with others (humans, cats, and sheep for a start). In my novel, Finding Vera, I describe many subtle social interactions I observed between Vera and her golden retriever and collie sisters. Take time to observe similar interactions between your own dogs, their friends, and acquaintances.
  • Dogs perceive much of their environment through their sense of smell and can glean detailed information as they pass through their world. By observing your dog carefully, you can sometimes determine whether the odor she’s studying stems from a new dog in the neighborhood, a cat, deer, raccoon, coyote or cougar based on her reaction to the scent. Your dog can also determine which direction an animal is moving by assessing the intensity of its scent. To me, the dogs’ interpretation of this invisible world is nothing short of miraculous.
  • Consider the remarkable ability of your dog to anticipate your return home. Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist from Barnard College in New York City, believes that dogs cannot only tell the time of day based on their circadian rhythms, but can tell how long their people have been gone and when they are due back through interpreting the strength of human scent in the house. This is discussed by Dr. Stanley Coren in an article in Psychology Today.
  • Instead of being frustrated by your dog barking at every little thing, try to imagine the world through the sensitive ears of your dog, and how your complex, computerized home resonates with sound. Find a trainer to help you desensitize your dog to the multitude of sounds he might hear if noise makes your dog anxious. Also consider using simple, calm, music to help her to relax.
  • Although dogs can see better in the dark than we can, they can sometimes be alarmed by objects they don’t recognize and will bark in response. Dogs’ vision is not as acute as ours in daylight, and therefore things might appear unexpectedly scary, even to the well-socialized, savvy dog. Reassurance and a treat can go a long way to easing their minds when this happens.
  • Dogs are emotional creatures just like us, and thrive on social interactions and relationships with humans and often (though not always) with other dogs. They can experience the basic emotions of joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, but not the more complex emotions such as guilt, shame, and pride. Watch for these emotions in your dog as you share your days with her, and don’t expect more of her than she is able to give. Don’t misinterpret fear and submission in anticipation of anger, as guilt.
  • Dogs love to share time with us, delight in our touch, our voices, and our attention. We revel in their warmth, their beautiful, expressive eyes, and their luscious fur. Both humans and dogs find joy and purpose in play and in working as a team.
  • If you find yourself getting frustrated with your dog, try to remember what a remarkable thing it is to share your life with another species. Take a deep breath, and revel in the wonderful individuality of your companion, so unlike the predictability of a robot.