Then, suddenly, there was an explosion in the field of dog cognition, spanning the fields of psychology, anthropology and neuroscience. The psychologist Alexandra Horowitz’s “Inside of a Dog” (2009) was a landmark, providing crucial insights into how a dog experiences the world. Imagine being four feet closer to the ground, relying on smell at least as much as sight and picking up on every conscious or unconscious gesture of the person you love most. Horowitz manages to answer burning questions without being fanciful; from the point of view of a dog, she writes, “a rose is undistinguished from the rest of the plant matter surrounding it — unless it has been urinated upon by another dog.”
Horowitz’s book was followed by Gregory Berns’s “How Dogs Love Us” (2013), about his remarkable experiments involving his terrier mix, in which he trained her and other dogs to lie perfectly still in an MRI machine. Several months, and many sausages, later, Berns had the world’s first brain scans of conscious dogs. He discovered that the reward centers in their brains responded to praise just as much as to food — and, more surprisingly, some dogs preferred praise. Berns also found that dogs have a dedicated area in their brains for recognizing human faces, a skill cats, for example, are generally less good at.
John Pilley, a retired psychologist, turned the field of developmental psychology upside down with his book “Chaser” (2013), about his Border collie, who not only knew 1,000 words but learned them using a technique called fast mapping, something thought possible only by children. And the ethologist Frans de Waal, in his brand-new “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves,” argues that dogs have a well-developed sense of fairness and other moral values. When pairs of dogs at the Clever Dog Lab in Vienna were asked to lift a paw to a human experimenter without receiving a reward, they readily complied. But if one of the pair was rewarded with a piece of bread, the other dog lost interest in the game and refused to play. De Waal likens such behavior to that of young children, “when one of them gets a smaller pizza slice than his sibling (yelling ‘That’s not fair!’).”
De Waal elaborated on the idea in a recent opinion piece for The Times, recounting how Bully, a dog belonging to the legendary animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz, once bit Lorenz’s hand as Lorenz tried to break up a dogfight. “Even though Dr. Lorenz petted him right away,” de Waal wrote, “Bully suffered a complete nervous breakdown. For days, he was virtually paralyzed and ignored his food. … He had violated a natural taboo, which among ancestral canines could have had the worst imaginable consequences, such as expulsion from the pack.”
The shift in how we see our dogs is not unprecedented. When it comes to the beings with whom we cohabitate, we have a history of changing our attitudes. The way we once regarded dogs — not the cleanest creatures but useful to have around — is the way we once regarded children. In early-18th-century Europe, children were born to work. Parents had large numbers of them not just because birth control was generally unavailable but because parents needed help, and understood that not all of their offspring were likely to survive infancy. Those that did were sent off to coal mines, factories and up chimneys — or to live with relatives in need of a servant.
By the 19th century, more children survived to adulthood, and more were spared the work force. Parents began to regard their children not as potential labor but as emblems of purity and innocence to be protected and loved. As the 19th century was for human children, the 21st century is for the dog. Most dogs are no longer required to work long hours. Most are not required to do anything at all, except love us. And this they do very well.