Aspen Ideas Fest goes to the dogs —and the audience loves it |

Aspen Ideas Fest goes to the dogs —and the audience loves it

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Canine cognition researcher Brian Hare reaches out to Gus, the dog of Aspen Institute executive vice president Elliot Gerson (left). Hare and Alexandra Horwitz, another canine cognition expert, shared tales of dog behavior at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

Yes, dog lovers, your loyal pooch is genuinely happy to see you when you return home after a long day at work.

However, Bowser would probably be just as thrilled if you threw up as if you offered a pat on the head and soothing words.

That was one of the more startling — and hilarious — revelations when the Aspen Ideas Festival went to the dogs Friday.

More than 200 people, presumably all dog lovers, packed a presentation by Brian Hare and Alexandra Horowitz, two of the foremost researchers of canine cognition.

Hare is a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. Horowitz is a dog cognition scientist and professor at Barnard College of Columbia University. They shared their insights in a presentation, “The Mysterious Mind of the Dog.”

They wasted no time exposing myths. It was probably less of a case of wolves being domesticated by humans as wolves domesticating themselves thousands of years ago, the scientists said.

As human settlements became widespread and dense, they generated more garbage. That presented opportunities for the less fearful wolves.

“If you’re a wolf, you have the choice of either foraging off that garbage and scavenging or you could go get kicked in the face and fail at chasing your quarry that you’re competing for against a human super-predator that has projectile weapons,” Hare said. “So I think some wolves made a smart decision.”

Horowitz said wolves and humans eventually became intertwined. The wolves that were less fearful and friendlier probably ate better, lived longer, bred more and experienced more interaction with humans. Over time that led to domestication.

“Now what we have is this uber-friendly species who is very responsive to us and doesn’t run away like other predators do,” she said.

The interaction over thousands of years created the special bond that dog lovers feel for their pets. Many dog lovers experience a rush of oxytocin, a powerful hormone released by the brain, when they give into their dog’s eyes or play with their pets. Oxytocin is known as the love hormone.

“We pet dogs and we get this surge of oxytocin,” Horowitz said. “And they get an oxytocin rush, too.”

Moderator Ross Andersen, a senior editor at The Atlantic, recalled how a past dog in his life, a boxer, would get so excited when he arrived home that his entire body would bend “like a kidney bean” and he would jump up and try to lick his face.

“I interpreted this to be a complete display of affection for me personally from my dog and I’m understanding that might be a partial leap,” Andersen said.

Horowitz said part of her research is testing “things we think about dogs that may or may not be true.”

“One of the things that people don’t want to hear is that their dog is not greeting them out of affection,” Horowitz said. “I’m not going to tell you that because I do think that’s an affection greeting. That’s the reunion of the social group. You’ve been away, now you’re back.

“It’s also probably something else,” she continued, giving the audience a queue to brace themselves.

Many dogs try to lick a person’s face as part of a greeting, she noted. Horowitz got curious about that and studied what licking means in gray wolves. She found that wolves that had been out on a hunt get greeted enthusiastically by other members of the pack when they return home. The greeting includes licks around the mouth.

“That prompts the hunter to regurgitate,” she said, causing the crowd to break out in laughter. It’s a gesture of sharing the bounty with other wolves, particularly the young.

Andersen wondered aloud what would happen if a dog owner spontaneously threw up when arriving home and getting greeted by the family dog.

Hare said the dog would probably love it.

“They finally understood!” he quipped, mimicking the dog’s reaction.

Tail wagging might be another gesture misinterpreted by humans.

“There are lots of different meanings of tail wags. A real high, loose tail wag is a tail wag of excitement,” Horowitz said. “But I’m really interested in another component of the dog’s universe that we don’t think about a lot, which is their olfactory universe.

“They’re really smelling creatures. As owners we know that because they’re always visiting smells and lingering on the walk. I think the tail wagging actually has an olfactory component.”

Dogs have a lot of glands around their tail. Hare likened the tail wagging to an “exhaust pipe” effect. Dogs are dispersing scents of themselves and communicating information — maybe everything from reproductive status to what they’ve eaten.

“They’re wafting it to each other as a way of giving information,” Horowitz said.

And they pick up the smells of dogs and other animals.

“They’re smelling their way through the world,” she said.

When the microphones got turned over to the audience, many people tossed out tough questions about dog behavior — whether they really feel guilty for something they’ve done when they give the adorable guilty look, whether they dream, if they prefer to have a canine companion and if they are aware of their mortality.

The scientists said there is so much that isn’t known because it cannot be tested.

Hare said scientific evidence shows canines have some level of memory. Puppies that are separated from their mother at a young age could identify her from sight and smell two years later, he said. However, they couldn’t identify siblings when they were separated at a young age.

Dog dreaming is something that may never be known, but it’s been proven that dogs’ performance at tasks improves the day after they learn the task if they get a good night’s sleep, he said.

Hare said some dogs might desire the company of another dog, but that many dogs simply yearn for more social time. They do get lonely when their owner leaves for the day, he said.

“The thing they want more than anything else is you,” he said. “What they really want is more time with you.”

But that guilty look probably doesn’t mean a dog really feels bad for an action, Horowitz said. It’s likely more an expression of appeasement because the dog senses their human companion is upset, she said.

Horowitz said dogs’ roles continue to evolve. Canines used to be bred for specific work, be it hunting, sorting sheep or rooting out rodents. But now most dogs are acquired to keep us company. That will take further adjustments by the four-legged friends.

“We haven’t bred them to be companions,” Horowitz said.

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