Do dogs have mental depth?

Some non-dog people I’ve met have this idea that dogs are all the same, and basically just respond to the stimulus in front of them.

Although this is obvious most people reading this, I find it fascinating and amusing to observe the strong pre-existing preferences both of my dogs have for certain things.

Grace loved churpi (above) the first time she tried it, Nell doesn’t like it at all, even though she usually eats almost anything (Grace carefully examines food items before taking them).

Nell loves overhang environments, Grace doesn’t like any containment, got to be open plan.

Both dogs grew up with same people, yet they have distinct preferences (likes). And while Grace has picked up Nell’s blanket-sucking hobby, she doesn’t care what the fabric is (a hotel duvet will do) but Nell absolutely needs her own blanket and nothing else will do.

Nurture explains some differences between dogs, but nature is definitely strong – in ways that are not related to breed/genetic differences, just individual personality.

The reason I find this remarkable and particularly fascinating is that there is a strand of research in human psychology that claims we don’t have (many) pre-existing preferences, and we just develop them as reactions to things we experience in life. Some even go as far as suggesting “the mind is flat”, that there is no “deep and complex set of inner beliefs, values, and desires that govern our thoughts, ideas, and actions, and that to know this depth is to know ourselves“.

The book has been fairly successful and the author is a respected psychologist, but I find it difficult to reconcile this idea with what I observe in my dogs every day – I wasn’t around for the first 2.5 years of Nell’s life so I can’t be as certain about her, but I’ve watched Grace grow and develop over the past year. She already came to us with a personality that was different to her litter mates (she is very sensitive and therefore would not fit certain homes), and over time she has selectively picked up behaviours from Nell – not all, which suggests that dogs are not simply the products of their environment.

Of course, this is all anecdotal evidence and my personal observations – there is not much science yet on this topic, most likely because it is hard to study in controlled circumstances. In the meantime, I will keep watching my two guineapigs – it’s definitely one of the perks of having two dogs to have a front row seat to all this!

More reading:

The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater

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