Science Sunday: Is Giuliani Going to the Dogs?

If so, dogs may be smarter than you think.The New York Daily News is reporting that Republican presidential contender and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had New York Police Department officers walk his then-girlfriend Judith Nathan’s dog at public expense.

This dogwalking – from the picture, the beast appears to be a poodle – is only one of several services performed at the public water dish by the NYPD for Giuliani’s inamorata, whom he has since married. Records show that public funds were used to take Giuliani and Nathan to 11 “secret trysts” and to send Nathan on long distance excursions.

Judith Giuliani (nee Nathan) and her dog.
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The propriety of these expenditures is in the capable investigative hands of the civic watchdogs at the Daily News. But – leaving aside for the moment the preparedness for running the global War on Terror of a man whose girlfriend keeps a poodle – the question for Science Sunday is: “What did the dog know, and when did he know it?”

Any dog owner will be surprised to learn that the issue of whether dogs are conscious is unresolved in the world of science. The controversy dates back at least to the early 17th century, when Rene Descartes argued that animals had no soul or mind, that their apparent intelligence was the result of the “arrangement of their parts.”

Curiously, Descartes had a dog himself, Monsieur Grat (Mister Scratch), of whom he was proud enough that he urged his best friend to mate the dog with his friend’s bitch. The breed to which Monsieur Grat belonged is lost to history, although I have my suspicions, and I’ll wager it wasn’t a poodle.

Anyway, for the last 400 years, some scientists have been trying to bring dogs out from under Descartes’ long intellectual shadow. One of these scientists is a friend of mine, University of Colorado biology Prof. Marc Bekoff. Marc says that sometimes when he tells people he studies whether dogs are conscious, they look at him like he’s a little crazy. Everybody who owns a dog believes dogs can think, unless they have an Irish setter.

Since neither Giuliani nor Nathan was bright enough to compute the political risks of publicly funded dogwalking by NYPD cops — (Pedestrian: “Nice dog.” NYPD patrolman: “Move along, sir, there’s nothing to see here.”) – we are left hoping the dog can tell the difference.

And thanks to a paper published this week in the journal Animal Cognition, we learn that there is hope for presidential leadership through dog smarts after all. Four University of Vienna scientists found that the dogs they trained could differentiate between a large set of dog pictures and an equally large set of landscape pictures. Furthermore, the dogs could differentiate novel combinations of pictures, for instance if a dog was included in a landscape picture.

The experimenters used a border collie, a border collie mix, an Australian shepherd and a mutt. These are smart breeds. I had an Australian shepherd that died about six months ago. She could have done long division if she had had an opposable thumb to hold the pencil.

The scientists had the dogs nose a computer-automated touch-screen viewing apparatus to discriminate between two large sets of pictures without social cueing. They concluded:

“All subjects learned to discriminate between the two sets and showed successful transfer to novel pictures. Interestingly, presentation of pictures providing contradictive information (novel dog pictures mounted on familiar landscape pictures) did not disrupt performance, which suggests that the dogs made use of a category-based  response rule with classification being coupled to category-relevant features (of the dog) rather than to item-specific features (of the background). We conclude that dogs are able to classify photographs of natural stimuli by means of a perceptual response rule using a newly established touch-screen procedure.”

The paper is “Visual categorization of natural stimuli by domestic dogs” by Friederike Range et al., in the November issue of Animal Cognition.

So what are the policy ramifications? What does this mean for the Giuliani-Nathan-poodle ethical nexus? Just this: If a dog can differentiate between a picture of a lake and a picture of another dog, it can certainly differentiate between a beefy NYPD bowser and Judith Nathan at the other end of the leash. A dog will realize that there is something hinky, even if it escapes the mayor and his wife/girlfriend. Science backs us up on this one.

In the future, when faced with dual carnal and financial temptation, we can only hope that Rudy will heed his inner poodle. That way, he won’t end up in the doghouse.


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