By Aubrey Beardsley
People often talk about helpless animals. And I’ve always wondered about the word, “helpless.” Does it mean you are without any help? Or does it mean that you cannot help others? That you have no help to give?
Well, I’ve always thought dogs are clearly not helpless. In fact, we are really full of help! Look at the wonderful things we do as assistance dogs, support dogs, therapy dogs.
And now the good people at the University of Portsmouth have proven it! Now of course, if you read some of the silly headlines from some of the papers, you would think that it was research about dogs being selfish. But, in my opinion, that’s a bit of attention-grabbing nonsense by people who apparently didn’t read the whole study. I’m here to put it straight. After all, it’s a dog’s life, and a dog should tell it!
These wonderful researchers studied 51 dogs from local training groups and the Dog Cognition Centre at Portsmouth. What the study looks into are the amazing powers of communication we have. We can read cues you don’t even know you are giving and that’s why we have done so well in domestication. We are collaborators! It’s not about the competition, it’s all about the cooperation.
And we don’t just read and robotically react to your cues. We help you out as well. We tell you when there’s danger, or obstacles, or other things of interest to you. And it is this kind of behaviour (showing behaviour) that the researchers wanted to look at in more detail. Just how helpful do we dogs set out to be?
And of course, how do the tabloid newspapers describe helpfulness? They called us selfish! The thing the newspapers set upon (always up for some drama!) was that the researchers described us as acting out of self-interest and having the motivation to do certain things if we had a selfish interest. To me, a selfish interest means that whatever we are looking at, it has some sort of relationship to us. So, I think to act out of self-interest is fair enough, and it’s a far cry from selfishness as a criticism. Show me a human that doesn’t act out of self-interest. It’s fundamental to any sentient being … to being self-aware!
So, if you ask me, being described as acting out of self-interest, or even as selfish, is a step forward for us! Because this says that researchers are looking at us as having a sense of self! This study may not prove our intentions, but it means that people are at least asking about them, that people are starting to see that we have an interest in our place in the world! Our behaviour isn’t just about reaction, it is also about our free will. Well, that’s my interpretation of the method and research anyway … but that just might be my self-interest talking …
So, if you want us to do something, get us interested in it!
And you know what else they found, or at least some evidence for it? That even if it isn’t entirely in our interest, we will continue to help you when we think you need it. Of course, that might be because making you happy is in our interest (I’m pretty sure that was an episode of Friends). Or it might be that you are looking for the keys and we want a ride in the car!
But whatever is going on, I like the fact that the researchers are looking at what we are doing and are considering what we are feeling. It isn’t all about the tricks you know. It’s also about who we are, and what we think about that.
Be that dog!