Cognitive Zooanthropology





The relationship between man and dog has evolved over time: the first traces of dogs living alongside  humans date back to the Paleolithic.

Over the centuries, the figure of the dog  has changed greatly.

From collaborative roles to man’s  survival (for instance during hunting or as a guardian of flocks) it went to have sport roles, dog-assisted therapy , or “simple pet” in a home.

Over the centuries some mentalistic model were created to enable these domesticated roles.

The main model in use is the Behaviourist model of associationist psychology, which has its  origins at the turn of the late ‘800 and early ‘900 thanks to Pavlov’ Studies, one of its greatest exponents with the “Conditioned Reflex” theory (year 1903).

His work was then picked up and expanded in the first decades of the ‘900 by Watson: with his dubiously ethical studies on little Albert, a child of one year old, he gave birth to a  branch of psychology called Behaviorism.

Watson wanted to prove that human  behavior was caused only by experiences, influenced completely by the environment in which one lived, regardless of any genetic and emotional background that could help develop one’s own personality.

The experiments Watson performed went as follows: Little Albert was set to play with a white mouse: during  the game,  the child would be frightened with a very loud noise. With the repetition of this absurd exercise the baby began to be afraid of the mouse, even when just viewing it from a distance; his fear was later extended to the colour white, to fluffy objects which resembled the mouse and all animals in the end.

Watson’s theories were later picked up by Skinner, who used less extreme methods which were nonetheless  objectionable.

His studies called for the imprisonment of an animal, a mouse or a pigeon, in a special laboratory apparatus called Skinner Box. The purpose of this box was to create an environment free of external stimuli, except for those provided by the researcher, to evaluate the animal’s behavioral responses during the experiment. Skinner developed his theory of “operant conditioning” that follows this pattern:

discriminative stimulus – response (behavior) – reinforcement.

In accordance to the theories of these two researchers, any physical or emotional response of the dog is the result of an automatism caused by a stimulus, whether it be of a positive nature (food-game) or negative (physical-deprivation punishment). The dog is thus deprived of its individuality and cognitive subjectivity.

A practical example: when we ask a dog to sit he will do so to get a treat (at best) or out of fear of a negative reaction (worst case). The act of sitting will be the result of an automation and not of a choice of the subject.

In the opposite direction went the studies carried out by Donald Griffin, an ethologist professor of zoology at various universities in the United States, which reached their top with the publication of one of his most famous books: “Question of Animal Awareness (1976)”. Griffin drew his knowledge from various disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, biology and ethology. He coined the term “Cognitive Revolution”, giving birth  to Cognitive Ethology, from which modern Cognitive Zooanthropology descends.

The Cognitive Zooanthropology is an interdisciplinary science that moves between philosophy, zoology, psychology and cognitive ethology. Those studies consider the relationships between the various animal species and focuses on contributions from other animal species to our anthropological dimension:  Democritus already pointed out how man had learned most of his talents observing animals and imitating their performances.

The Cognitive Zooanthropology appreciates each animal has its own subjectivity and its own experiential ability. It is aware that the non-human animal, as much as the human animal, is able to learn from its own experiences and grows its inner world through them.

The non-human animal, like the human animal, interrogates itself  about the world surrounding it and grows  through  its experiences.

In this optic our previous example, the dog sitting down, takes on a different dimension.

The subject will have many reasons for sitting, in that moment and in that context: waiting for something, taking a moment to pause and rest, a contemplative moment;  these are all projections of complex mentalistic models and will not be an impersonal result of cause – effect.


Obedience vs. Cognitive Zooanthropologic Method

Modern society pushes us toward faster rhythms of life, chasing an ideal of perfection: perfect family life, perfect house, perfect gardens, perfect bodies, perfect animals.

In this context we wish to have as our pet an animal that plays and has fun with us while we enjoy ourselves, who makes us company when we are at home yet knows how to be alone all day while we are at work. Who knows how to play with our children, but isn’t  too exuberant because it might hurt them; snappy and playful, but not too loud or intrusive if we are busy with other matters. We want an animal that devotes his time to us, but doesn’t ask us time for it in return. It has to have a beautiful coat, but one that does not shed hair around the house; it’s funny but with a quiet personality because it must not damage the house, yet not too quiet because otherwise we think it’s sick. We want everything and its opposite. In this vision of “puppet-dog” we take part to a lot of those  training courses based on Obedience, whether they advocate gentle methods or not.

Obedience originates from the Behaviorist model.

It is based on teaching the dog basic commands, for example: sit, down and stay. Based on how good and quickly the “puppet-dog” will perform, we will have an indication of how strong and deep the relationship with the dog is.

A true relationship is based on very different assumptions.

A true relationship is based on friendship, trust, mutual respect and above all is not bought with food, games or worse, violence.

Basing  the relationship with our dog on methods like Obedience or the similar, means creating a twist in the relationship: in the long run it can damage our companion, both behaviorally and physically: many diseases in animals and humans, according to scientifically approved studies, are caused by excessive and repeated emotional stress.

The postulates on which the Cognitive Zooanthropological method is based are:

1) The dog is recognized as otherness: it means that it has a subjectivity and an unique experiential learning ability.

2) The partnership with the dog is the result of a relationship based on mutual trust.

The mind of the dog is configured by components of knowledge, some acquired through evolutionary processes, other acquired by the relationship with conspecifics and developed as a sort of apprenticeship of species, others acquired contingently and occasionally through individual experience. For this reason the animal, in this case the dog, is capable of:

  • Making choices;
  • Thinking about the world it lives in;
  • Analyzing complex inputs;
  • Choose in an elective way how to be in the here and now;

The Cognitive Zooanthropology recognizes an animal inner world, with behavior as its expression.

Applying knowledge methods according to the principles of Cognitive Zooanthropology means understanding that unique animal, understand its inter- and intraspecific relations, be them with its affiliative quadrupedal and/ or bipedal group, understand its habitat and allow it to express itself.

If necessary, it can also help him in recovering its Socio-Cognitive expressions with the help of a expert professional in this field: a Facilitator of the ethical relationships between human and dog.