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May 22, 2014

Barks and recreation: Cracking the canine code

(Continued)

SAN FRANCISCO —

The data revealed insights into how the animals maintained their tight social bonds — by grooming each other, for example. But what changed Bekoff's life was watching them play. The wolves would chase each other, run, jump and roll over for seemingly no other reason than to have fun.

Few people had studied animal play, but Bekoff was intrigued. "Play is a major expenditure of energy, and it can be dangerous," he says. "You can twist a shoulder or break a leg, and it can increase your chances of being preyed upon. So why do they do it? It has to feel good."

Suddenly, Bekoff wasn't interested just in behavior; he was interested also in emotions and, fundamentally, what was going on inside these animals' heads.

— — —

Bekoff wasn't the first scientist to become intrigued by the canine mind. Charles Darwin in the mid-1800s had postulated that canines were capable of abstract thought, morality and even language. (Darwin was inspired by his own mutts; he owned 13 of them during his life.) Dogs, he wrote, understand human words and respond with barks of eagerness, joy and despair. If that wasn't communication between the species, what was?

Two of Darwin's contemporaries had suggested that dogs could even sniff out someone's social status and read words. But by the time Bekoff turned his attention to canines, scientists had long deemed them unworthy of study. Because they no longer lived in their natural environment, the thinking went, their minds were corrupted and could not shed light on the bigger question, the evolution of human intelligence. The only animals worth studying were wild ones.

But when Bekoff began looking at videos of dogs romping in super slow motion, he began to realize that there was more going on in the canine mind than science had acknowledged. He noticed the "play bow," for example.

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