Where’s My Body?

Science is so cool. I read an article recently about a study investigating self-awareness in dogs. In prior studies, dogs didn’t recognize their reflection in a mirror so were thought to have more limited self-awareness than humans. This conclusion was based on the assumption that dogs were as vison-driven as we are. (Hint: They’re not. Scent and sound, anyone?)

The current study found that a dog’s self-perception is more rooted in this body position. The dogs in this study were asked to bring a toy to the handler. At a designated point in the exercise, the toy was attached to a mat the dog was sitting on. Therefore, to move the toy, the dog had to first move himself, thereby demonstrating he recognized that his body was the obstacle that kept him from moving the toy. In other words, he was aware of his body and the consequence of his actions in moving his body.

As my evolutionary biologist friend (everyone should have a scientist friend!) pointed out, there would be no evolutionary benefit to a dog for recognizing himself in the reflection of a stream or a mirror. His benefit comes from recognizing the barriers – or opportunities – of his body in the environment around him. Think about a dog carefully and quietly placing a paw on the earth as s/he stalks his prey or how s/he uses their body or protect or warm pups.

That got me thinking about the proprioception and body awareness exercises I do with mobility-challenged dogs in the A Loyal Companion gym. While my focus and end game is always helping the dog move through their world as easily and comfortably as possible, I’m also working to build/maintain the dog’s awareness of self within his environment. The results of the current study give me another perspective on why dog’s use their bodies in the ways they do.

This article also brought back a memory of my dog Harley and his tail. Harley was a Great Dane/foxhound mix with a barrel chest, stilt-like legs and long, ropey tail. In the last year of his life, he would sometimes get his tail wrapped under his lanky legs. When he’d try to stand up, that tail would be caught under one of his rear paws and his butt would stop rising abruptly and he’d plop back down in a heap. After the failed attempt, he’d recognize the problem and move his paw away from his tail and start the lifting process all over again.

I’m fascinated by watching dogs navigate their worlds, whether it’s through rolling hills and trees, over the sidewalks of the city, or across the kitchen floor. They have a lot to teach me and I can’t wait to learn!

 

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