Sunday, January 01, 2012

A Gem of a Book 3

A Timely Lesson

Friendly Labrador, Howth Summit, Feb 2007
As well as philosophical insights, Mark Rowlands offers us insights into how to train dogs and, indeed, how to remain safe in their company. The most typical reason for a dog to bite, he informs us, is when they lose track of your hand. People reach around to pat the back of the dog’s head or neck. When it loses sight of your hand, the dog becomes nervous, suspects you might be attacking it and consequently bites. Also, he tells us to never pick the alpha male in any litter of dogs as one could expect trouble taming him. We also learn that wolves have yellow eyes. Rowlands also informs us about the laws with respect to owning wolves – pure bred wolves are illegal to own while you can buy, sell and own wolf-dog hybrids, and the highest ratio of wolf to dog allowed is 96%.

Battle of Wills

Our author goes on to inform us that good dog training is never a battle of wills, as it simply has nothing to do with the ego. Training a dog can never be seen as anything too personal – indeed, it is not personal at all, and he recommends the animal training manuals of the expert William Koehler. His key piece of advice was always to get the animal to watch you, the trainer.

Canine Intelligence

Dogs, as man’s best friends, are often seen as very intelligent, and indeed they are. Psychological tests show that wolves do better than dogs on problem tasks while the latter beat the wolves on training tasks. The reason for this difference is that wolves need to be quick and sharp at problem solving as they must learn swiftly to avoid trouble and danger on an hourly basis in their lives in the woodland, mountains and forests. Therefore, the environment of the wolf selects for mechanical intelligence.

Rowlands’ Contribution to Philosophy

Our author informs us that he is professionally probably most known for being one of the architects of a view of the mind that sees it as essentially embodied and embedded in the world around it (see ibid., p. 30ff.). As he explains lucidly himself:

Mental activities do not just take place inside our heads – they are not just brain processes. Rather, they also involve activities we do in the world: in particular, the manipulation, transformation and exploitation of relevant environmental structures... The forerunner of this view was the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who, with his colleague Anton Luria demonstrated just how much processes of remembering and other mental activities had changed with the development of the external device for storing information. The outstanding natural memory of primitive cultures gradually withers away as we relay more and m9ore on written language as ways of storing our memories. (Ibid., p. 30)

Unlike the wolf, the dog, who is a close relative and descendant of the wolf, has learnt to rely on the human animal. More than that, still, the dog has developed the ability to use us to get his needs met. In short, we are the information-storing and processing devices that the dog has. In other words we humans are part of the dog’s extended mind. When a dog wants to go out to the garden it will stand by the closed door till we open it, or bark if we are not looking in that direction.

A Final Note on Training a Dog

Training dogs, even wolves, is never cruel, Rowlands argues, in the hands of qualified and humane trainers. Animals need to be disciplined if they are to live somewhat freely with us humans. Indeed young, and sometimes not so young, humans need to be disciplined if they, too, are to live in human society. After all, that’s why we have prisons – to incarcerate those who cannot live in society without wreaking havoc on themselves and others through their crimes. However, we would all be at one with Professor Rowlands where he argues that we must discipline our animals, but never ever break their spirit. The same apples to our human offspring. To really appreciate our freedom we have to have learnt good discipline in our lives. The exercise of real freedom requires real discipline. I’ll finish this post with a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche: “Those who cannot discipline themselves will quickly find someone else doing it for them.”

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