Constructing Dogs

What is a dog? It sounds like a simple question. But students at Indiana University, earning degrees in the History and Philosophy of Science department, can spend their entire college experience exploring all the implications of that very question.
  • science
  • genetics
Dog World in November 2008

Turns out that there are numerous answers. In the process of inquiring, students not only discover what a dog is, but also what people are. They may choose to focus on canine biology, the social history of dogs and people, canine cognition and training, or several other angles. But a new class called "Constructing Dogs" asks students to look at all of this. It is the brainchild of Grant Goodrich, who recently earned his Ph.D. at Indiana University, and Dr. Colin Allen, Ph.D., who heads the History and Philosophy of Science Department.

Long ago, dogs earned a place in our hearts. Now that a university has made dogs a worthy subject for a liberal-arts degree, right along with Shakespeare, Freud, Mozart, and Darwin, have our canine companions also earned a place in our minds?

Increased Scientific Attention

As much as we all love dogs, maybe it still seems odd to think of an entire college experience centered around the history and philosophy of dogs. If you were a student in the Constructing Dogs class, on the first day you might raise your hand and ask, "Where did the idea for a course like this come from?"

Allen and Goodrich say their inspiration is the increasing amount of scientific, social, and historical information that has been pouring forth from mainstream and intellectual publications in recent years.

"If you look at scholarly writings on dog cognition," Allen explains, "you could track the development: 12 years ago, there was nothing about dogs. Today, there are regular articles about them." Experts in a vast array of fields are finding dogs to be worthy of a much closer look.

Beyond scientific discoveries, Allen and Goodrich were impressed by statistics showing a rapid rise in the number of dog-owning households, and in how many ways dogs have become like family members to their human companions.

Still, just because dogs are appearing in scholarly journals, and just because people are welcoming more dogs into their homes, does not justify undergraduate and graduate college coursework, does it?

"There has been some interesting investigations into play behavior with chimpanzees that ended up telling us a lot about dogs," Allen explains. "Scientists have looked at chimps' social behaviors and found that they failed to do simple things. They then did the same studies on dogs." It turned out that the dogs were able to complete the tasks. This surprised everyone, including the scientists. Such studies began opening up new levels of curiosity about dogs' social and cognitive skills.

From these simple studies, scientists began to wonder more about where dogs got their great social skills from. That was impossible to answer without also looking at human history and our intense efforts to develop dogs especially attuned to us.

"This brought up the question of how humans, consciously or unconsciously, evolved traits that made dogs such highly social beings," Allen explains. "You could go pretty far with this." As a result of selective breeding for jobs like herding and guard work, humans may have inadvertently formed traits such as attentiveness and empathy. We continue to do this right now.

Clinching the Idea

Indiana University has a history of being receptive to cutting-edge concepts students wish to study. For many years, the university has run the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior (CISAB), where students can examine the history of human-animal bonds. With all the new information about dogs on their minds, Allen and Goodrich took part in a study group at the CISAB, where, among other things, they discussed studies done in Russia with foxes, and in Hungary with wolves.

In the Hungarian study, researchers reared wolves and dogs, giving each the same upbringing. Researchers then gave the wolves and dogs the same tasks to complete. Although dogs descended from wolves, the difference was striking. "Both animals did the tasks with intensity," Allen explains. "But the wolves just went at it. The dogs stopped once in a while to look back at the humans. There was this social connection. The dogs seemed to ask, 'should I continue?' at each step."

In the 40-year Russian study, begun in the 1950s by Dmitry Belyaev, the findings were even more shocking. Scientists gathered two groups of foxes and bred them over several generations. One group was kept away from humans. The other group socialized with humans. Over a short time, the human-connected foxes gave birth to more foxes also good with humans.

But it did not end there. "As they bred the foxes that had a willingness to approach humans," Allen explains, "other dog-like traits emerged, such as changes in coat color, different sizes, and floppy ears. Somehow, by breeding for friendliness, researchers got a much bigger package."

The scientific, social, and historical implications of all this lingered in the minds of Allen and Goodrich well after the study group ended. Allen and Goodrich saw an opportunity for classes at Indiana University that could examine the meaning of all dog-related ideas. The result was new coursework at the undergraduate and graduate level. The Constructing Dogs class is a potential centerpiece for students' canine-centered explorations.

Goodrich teaches Constructing Dogs, which he says allows students to gain an even greater appreciation for animals they think they know so well. "We realized that this would be a great way to introduce people to the whole history of science, the basic ideas of biology, evolution, social sciences, and psychology. We get into how science experiments have evolved: dogs were once used in these experiments. We get into the space program, and why dogs were chosen to be the first ones into space. Dogs really open students' minds."

There were also practical considerations. "A lot of our students love dogs, so we thought this would bring them in!" Allen jokes.

As always in intellectual pursuits, answers give rise to more interesting questions. Here is your chance to take part, virtually, in some of the discussions that engage students in the Constructing Dogs class...

Entering Human Society

How did it all begin? What made humans reach out to dogs and train them for various jobs? Perhaps that is the wrong assumption altogether. "Based on the history," Goodrich explains, "it is a viable hypothesis that dogs actually sought us out, rather than the other way around." There is evidence that it might have begun when wolves found an opportunity to "clean up" after human hunting expeditions.

How would this relate to the bond that humans eventually formed with wolves? It is very possible that those wolves who first followed humans after a hunt were already exhibiting finely tuned social skills. They had to be able to read subtle human intentions, and know how to get close without becoming targets of the hunt.

Many thousands of years later, the ability to read human cues might be what made dogs so good as shepherds, and later in guide work, rescue missions, police duties, and military operations.

"Dogs have this uncanny ability to pick up on things we're not aware of ourselves," Goodrich says. "Seeing-eye work is a perfect example of this, where dogs are expected to detect subtle changes in direction."

Through the continued co-evolution of humans and dogs, the sensory traits that started out in those early wolves got stronger, leading to ever more possible jobs. After doing so well in the field, it seems natural that at some point dogs would have an opportunity to take the next step. "People let these highly social creatures into our homes to become part of the household," Goodrich suggests. "That created a whole new set of social expectations, which put more selection pressures on dogs."

Students can make the connection here with that Russian fox study. By breeding for behaviors we admire in household pets, humans might have brought out more desirable traits, including physical characteristics that make dogs more pleasant to play and cuddle with. All the while, these household dogs were quietly honing their already considerable bonding skills. Long after many dogs had stopped being bred for work, their social ties with humans got much deeper.

Through connection, breeding, and training, what else might humans bring out in dogs? How far could we go with this? What would it mean socially? These questions could be worthy of a student's full experience at Indiana University.

"Trait Linkage"

While students think about the image of dogs transforming through social interactions with humans, the teacher has an opportunity to introduce the basics of genetics and evolution.

It can start with plants. Allen describes how native Americans sought to make acorns palatable to eat. Normally, acorns are far too bitter. By selectively breeding, people occasionally were able to get sweeter acorns. Unfortunately, genes for sweetness are linked to genes that make oak trees sickly and unable to reproduce.

"If we apply this idea to dogs," Allen says, "we have this very interesting phenomenon where we bred them for social reasons, but somehow brought along all these other traits. Through our history with dogs, students can reveal underlying biology that we usually don't see. Humans can breed for something, but there's this whole other part of creation that is unintended."

Students might wonder about how people can examine these linkages more closely. How might this knowledge be used – or abused – as we gain greater power to manipulate genetics in the years ahead?

Impulse Control

Students may not be accustomed to thinking of dogs as animals. Dogs are different somehow, better in our minds. It is not a put-down to say they are animals. In fact, to appreciate how wonderful dogs are, it is good to be reminded once in a while. It makes them even more amazing when we consider how they control many built-in animal impulses.

Take a look at the "fight-or-flight" impulse. When confronted with a dangerous situation, animals instinctively flee the scene, or lash out in self-protection. Somehow, dogs can transcend this. The most prominent example is police work. Even in the heat of a shoot-out, with loud and distressing noises surrounding them, police dogs stay with their handlers.

Beyond fight-or-flight, there is simple impulse control, which dogs exhibit more than other domesticated animals. Some pigs are bred to hunt for truffles, using their noses to root the precious mushrooms from the ground. "The thing is," Allen laughs, "when the pig finds the truffle, the human has to get it before the pig does! But dogs can be asked to hunt and retrieve all kinds of things that are interesting to them." We can trust dogs to control their innate urge to eat or grab, giving the human all the time needed to get to an object.

Does this mean dogs are, after all, truly different from "regular" animals? Is this self-control another example of the social co-evolution of humans and dogs? Is impulse control one of those unintentional traits that arose as people bred dogs for something entirely different?

What Does it All Mean?

After millennia of working with humans, dogs are complex enough for us to take a closer look at them. Coursework at Indiana University is groundbreaking, and yet it is a natural response to the groundswell of scientific work and the expanding social significance of dogs.

Goodrich wants students to return to that simple question, "What is a dog?" and realize that there is more to it than it first appears. "I'm hoping students will look at dogs in more serious ways, look beyond their own homes and see what else there is to know about these companions."

Studying dogs is also a self-reflective effort for Goodrich. "I hope students will see that what dogs do, and what we've done in that long relationship, illustrates our behavior as much as theirs."