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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/November 1899/Do Animals Reason?

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | November 1899


THIS interesting subject has been ably handled from the negative side by Edward Thorndike, Ph. D., in the August number of the Popular Science Monthly. Dr. Thorndike, with all his skill in treating this very interesting subject, seems to have forgotten one very important point. His expectation has not only been higher than any fair claim of an animal's reasoning power, but he has overlooked the fact that there are different ways of reasoning. Men of different races and those of little intelligence can be placed in new environments and be asked to perform things which, while utterly impossible to them, are simple and crude to those of higher intelligence and who have all their days been accustomed to high mental exercise. If such difference exists between the highest and most intelligent of the human race and the degraded and uncultured, vastly greater is the gulf that separates the lowest stratum of humanity from the most intelligent of the brute creation. The fair way to test the intelligence of the so-called lower orders of men is to go to their native lands and study them in their own environments and in possession of the equipments of life to which they have been accustomed. The same is true of the brute creation. Only the highest results can be expected from congenial environments. To pass final judgment upon the animal kingdom, having for data only the results of the doctor's experiments, seems to us manifestly unfair. He takes a few cats and dogs and submits them to environments which are altogether foreign to them, and then expects feats of mind from them which would be far greater than the mastering of the reason why two and two make four is to the stupidest child of man. As the doctor has been permitted to tell the results of his experiments, may I claim a similar privilege? While I did not use dogs merely to test their intelligence—my business demanding of myself and them the fullest use of all our energies and all the intelligence, be it more or less, that was possessed by man or beast—I had the privilege of seeing in my dogs actions that were, at least to me, convincing that they possessed the rudiments of reasoning powers, and, in the more intelligent, that which will be utterly inexplicable if it is not the product of reasoning faculties.

For a number of years I was a resident missionary in the Hudson Bay Territories, where, in the prosecution of my work, I kept a large number of dogs of various breeds. With these dogs I traveled several thousands of miles every winter over an area larger than the State of New York. In summer I used them to plow my garden and fields. They dragged home our fish from the distant fisheries, and the wood from the forests for our numerous fires. They cuddled around me on the edges of my heavy fur robes in wintry camps, where we often slept out in a hole dug in the snow, the temperature ranging from 30° to 60° below zero. When blizzard storms raged so terribly that even the most experienced Indian guides were bewildered, and knew not north from south or east from west, our sole reliance was on our dogs, and with an intelligence and an endurance that ever won our admiration they succeeded in bringing us to our desired destination.

It is conceded at the outset that these dogs of whom I write were the result of careful selection. There are dogs and dogs, as there are men and men. They were not picked up in the street at random. I would no more keep in my personal service a mere average mongrel dog than I would the second time hire for one of my long trips a sulky Indian. As there are some people, good in many ways, who can not master a foreign tongue, so there are many dogs that never rise above the one gift of animal instinct. With such I too have struggled, and long and patiently labored, and if of them only I were writing I would unhesitatingly say that of them I never saw any act which ever seemed to show reasoning powers. But there are other dogs than these, and of them I here would write and give my reason why I firmly believe that in a marked degree some of them possessed the powers of reasoning.

Two of my favorite dogs I called Jack and Cuffy. Jack was a great black St. Bernard, weighing nearly two hundred pounds. Cuffy was a pure Newfoundland, with very black curly hair. These two dogs were the gift of the late Senator Sanford. With other fine dogs of the same breeds, they soon supplanted the Eskimo and mongrels that had been previously used for years about the place.

I had so much work to do in my very extensive field that I required to have at least four trains always fit for service. This meant that, counting puppies and all, there would be about the premises from twenty to thirty dogs. However, as the lakes and rivers there swarmed with fish, which was their only food, we kept the pack up to a state of efficiency at but little expense. Jack and Cuffy were the only two dogs that were allowed the full

PSM V56 D0115 Jack and his master.png
Jack and his Master.

liberty of the house. They were welcome in every room. Our doors were furnished with the ordinary thumb latches. These latches at first bothered both dogs. All that was needed on our part

was to show them how they worked, and from that day on for years they both entered the rooms as they desired without any trouble, if the doors opened from them. There was a decided difference, however, in opening a door if it opened toward them. Cuffy was never able to do it. With Jack it was about as easily done as it was by the Indian servant girl. Quickly and deftly would he shove up the exposed latch and the curved part of the thumb piece and draw it toward him. If the door did not easily open, the claws in the other fore paw speedily and cleverly did the work. The favorite resting place of these two magnificent dogs was on some fur rugs on my study floor. Several times have we witnessed the following action in Cuffy, who was of a much more restless temperament than Jack: When she wanted to leave the study she would invariably first go to the door and try it. If it were in the slightest degree ajar she could easily draw it toward her and thus open it. If, on the contrary, it were latched, she would at once march over to Jack, and, taking him by an ear with her teeth, would lead him over to the door, which he at once opened for her. If reason is that power by which we "are enabled to combine means for the attainment of particular ends," I fail to understand the meaning of words if it were not displayed in these instances.

Both Jack and Cuffy were, as is characteristic of such dogs, very fond of the water, and in our short, brilliant summers would frequently disport themselves in the beautiful little lake, the shores of which were close to our home. Cuffy, as a Newfoundland dog, generally preferred to continue her sports in the waves some time after Jack had finished his bath. As they were inseparable companions. Jack was too loyal to retire to the house until Cuffy was ready to accompany him. As she was sometimes whimsical and dilatory, she seemed frequently to try his patience. It was, however, always interesting to observe his deference to her. To understand thoroughly what we are going to relate in proof of our argument it is necessary to state that the rocky shore in front of our home was at this particular place like a wedge, the thickest part in front, rising up about a dozen feet or so abruptly from the water. Then to the east the shore gradually sloped down into a little sandy cove. When Jack had finished his bath he always swam to this sandy beach, and at once, as he shook his great body, came gamboling along the rocks, joyously barking to his companion still in the waters. When Cuffy had finished her watery sports, if Jack were still on the rocks, instead of swimming to the sandy cove and there landing she would start directly for the place where Jack was awaiting her. If it were at a spot where she could not alone struggle up, Jack, firmly bracing himself, would reach down to her and then, catching hold of the back of her neck, would help her up the slippery rocks. If it were at a spot where he could not possibly reach her, he would, after several attempts, all the time furiously barking as though expressing his anxiety and solicitude, rush off to a spot where some old oars, paddles, and sticks of various kinds were piled. There he searched until he secured one that suited his purpose. With this in his mouth, he hurried back to the spot where Cuffy was still in the water at the base of the steep rocks. Here he would work the stick around until he was able to let one end down within reach of his exacting companion in the water. Seizing it in her teeth and with the powerful Jack pulling at the other end she was soon able to work her way up the rough but almost perpendicular rocks. This prompt action, often repeated on the part of Jack, looked very much like "the specious appearance of reasoning." It was a remarkable coincidence that if Jack were called away, Cuffy at once swam to the sandy beach and there came ashore.

Jack never had any special love for the Indians, although we were then living among them. He was, however, too well instructed ever to injure or even growl at any of them. The changing of Indian servant girls in the kitchen was always a matter of perplexity to him. He was suspicious of these strange Indians coming in and so familiarly handling the various utensils of their work. Not daring to injure them, it was amusing to watch him in his various schemes to tease them. If one of them seemed especially anxious to keep the doors shut. Jack took the greatest delight in frequently opening them. This he took care only to do when no member of the family was around. These tricks he would continue to do until formal complaints were lodged against him. One good scolding was sufficient to deter him from thus teasing that girl, but he would soon begin to try it with others.

One summer we had a fat, good-natured servant girl whom we called Mary. Soon after she was installed in her place Jack began, as usual, to try to annoy her, but found it to be a more difficult job than it had been with some of her predecessors. She treated him with complete indifference, and was not in the least afraid of him, big as he was. This seemed to very much humiliate him, as most of the other girls had so stood in awe of the gigantic fellow that they had about given way to him in everything. Mary, however, did nothing of the kind. She would shout, "Get out of my way!" as quickly to "his mightiness" as she would to the smallest dog on the place. This very much offended Jack, but he had been so well trained, even regarding the servants, that he dare not retaliate even with a growl. Mary, however, had one weakness, and after a time Jack found it out. Her mistress observing that this girl, who had been transferred from a floorless wigwam into a civilized kitchen, was at first careless about keeping the floor as clean as it should be, had, by the promise of some desired gift in addition to her wages, so fired her zeal that it seemed as though every hour that could be saved from her other necessary duties was spent in scrubbing that kitchen floor. Mary was never difficult to find, as was often the case with other Indian girls; if missed from other duties, she was always found scrubbing her kitchen.

In some way or other—how we do not profess to know—Jack discovered this, which had become to us a source of amusement, and here he succeeded in annoying her, where in many other ways which he had tried he had only been humiliated and disgraced. He would, when the floor had just been scrubbed, march in and walk over it with his feet made as dirty as tramping in the worst places outside could make them. At other times he would plunge into the lake, and instead of, as usual, thoroughly shaking himself dry on the rocks, would wait until he had marched in upon Mary's spotless floor. At other times, when Jack noticed that Mary was about to begin scrubbing her floor he would deliberately stretch himself out in a prominent place on it, and doggedly resist, yet without any growling or biting, any attempt on her part to get him to move. In vain would she coax or scold or threaten. Once or twice, by some clever stratagem, such as pretending to feed the other dogs outside or getting them excited and furiously barking, as though a bear or some other animal were being attacked, did she succeed in getting him out. But soon he found her out, and then he paid not the slightest attention to any of these things. Once when she had him outside she securely fastened the door to keep him out until her scrubbing would be done. Furiously did Jack rattle at the latch, but the door was otherwise so secured that he could not open it. Getting discouraged in his efforts to open the door in the usual way, he went to the woodpile and seizing a large billet in his mouth he came and so pounded the door with it that Mary, seeing that there was great danger of the panel being broken in, was obliged to open the door and let in the dog. Jack proudly marched in to the kitchen with the stick of wood in his mouth. This he carried to the wood box, and, when he had placed it there, he coolly stretched himself out on the floor where he would be the biggest nuisance.

Seeing Jack under such circumstances on her kitchen floor, poor Mary could stand it no longer, and so she came marching in to my study, and in vigorous picturesque language in her native Cree described Jack's various tricks and schemes to annoy her and thus hinder her in her work. She ended up by the declaration that she was sure the meechee munedoo (the devil) was in that dog. While not fully accepting the last statement, we felt that the time had come to interfere, and that Jack must be reproved and stopped. In doing this we utilized Jack's love for our little ones, especially for Eddie, the little four-year-old boy. His obedience as well as loyalty to that child was marvelous and beautiful. The slightest wish of the lad was law to Jack.

As soon as Mary had finished her emphatic complaints, I turned to Eddie, who with his little sister had been busily playing with some blocks on the floor, and said:

"Eddie, go and tell that naughty Jack that he must stop teasing Mary. Tell him his place is not in the kitchen, and that he must keep out of it."

Eddie had listened to Mary's story, and, although he generally sturdily defended Jack's various actions, yet here he saw that the dog was in the wrong, and so he gallantly came to her rescue. Away with Mary he went, while the rest of us, now much interested, followed in the rear to see how the thing would turn out. As Eddie and Mary passed through the dining room we remained in that room, while they went on into the adjoining kitchen, leaving the door open, so that it was possible for us to distinctly hear every word that was uttered. Eddie at once strode up to the spot where Jack was stretched upon the floor. Seizing him by one of his ears, and addressing him as with the authority of a despot, the little lad said:

"I am ashamed of you, Jack. You naughty dog, teasing Mary like this! So you won't let her wash her kitchen. Get up and come with me, you naughty dog!" saying which the child tugged away at the ear of the dog. Jack promptly obeyed, and as they came marching through the dining room on their way to the study it was indeed wonderful to see that little child, whose beautiful curly head was not much higher than that of the great, powerful dog, yet so completely the master. Jack was led into the study and over to the great wolf-robe mat where he generally slept. As he promptly obeyed the child's command to lie down upon it, he received from him his final orders:

"Now. Jack, you keep out of the kitchen"; and to a remarkable degree from that time on that order was obeyed.

We have referred to the fact that Jack placed the billet of wood in the wood box when it had served his purpose in compelling Mary to open the door. Carrying in wood was one of his accomplishments. Living in that cold land, where we depended entirely on wood for our fuel, we required a large quantity of it. It was cut in the forests, sometimes several miles from the house. During the winters it was dragged home by the dogs. Here it was cut into the proper lengths for the stoves and piled up in the yard. When required, it was carried into the kitchen and piled up in a large wood box. This work was generally done by Indian men. When none were at hand the Indian girls had to do the work, but it was far from being enjoyed by them, especially in the bitter cold weather. It was suggested one day that Jack could be utilized for this work. With but little instruction and trouble he was induced to accept of the situation, and so after that the cry, "Jack, the wood box is empty!" would set him industriously to work at refilling it.

To us, among many other instances of dog reasoning that came under our notice as the years rolled on, was one on the part of a large, powerful dog we called Cæsar. It occurred in the spring of the year, when the snow had melted on the land, and so, with the first rains, was swelling the rivers and creeks very considerably. On the lake before us the ice was still a great solid mass, several feet in thickness. Near our home was a now rapid stream that, rushing down into the lake, had cut a delta of open water in the ice at its mouth. In this open place Papanekis, one of my Indians, had placed a gill net for the purpose of catching fish. Living, as he did, all winter principally upon the fish caught the previous October or November and kept frozen for several months hung up in the open air, we were naturally pleased to get the fresh ones out of the water in the spring. Papanekis had so arranged his net, by fastening a couple of ropes about sixty feet long, one at each end, that when it was securely fastened at each side of the stream it was carried out into this open deltalike space by the force of the current, and there hung like the capital letter U. Its upper side was kept in position by light-wooded floats, while medium-sized stones, as sinkers, steadied it below.

Every morning Papanekis would take a basket and, being followed by all the dogs of the kennels, would visit his net. Placed as we have described, he required no canoe or boat in order to overhaul it and take from it the fish there caught. All he had to do was to seize hold of the rope at the end fastened on the shore and draw it toward him. As he kept pulling it in, the deep bend in it gradually straightened out until the net was reached. His work was now to secure the fish as he gradually drew in the net and coiled it at his feet. The width of the opening in the water being about sixty feet, the result was that when he had in this way overhauled his net he had about reached the end of the rope attached to the other side. When all the fish in the net were secured, all Papanekis had to do to reset the net was to throw some of it out in the right position in the stream. Here the force of the running waters acting upon it soon carried the whole net down into the open place as far as the two ropes fastened on the shores would admit. Papanekis, after placing the best fish in his basket for consumption in the mission house and for his own family, divided what was left among the eager dogs that had accompanied him. This work went on for several days, and the supply of fish continued to increase, much to our satisfaction.

One day Papanekis came into my study in a state of great perturbation. He was generally such a quiet, stoical sort of an Indian that I was at once attracted by his mental disquietude. On asking the reason why he was so troubled, he at once blurted out, "Master, there is some strange animal visiting our net!"

In answer to my request for particulars, he replied that for some mornings past when he went to visit it he found, entangled in the meshes, several heads of whitefish. Yet the net was always in its right position in the water. On my suggesting that perhaps otters, fishers, minks, or other fish-eating animals might have done the work, he most emphatically declared that he knew the habits of all these and all other animals living on fish, and it was utterly impossible for any of them to have thus done this work. The mystery continuing for several following mornings, Papanekis became frightened and asked me to get some other fisherman in his place, as he was afraid longer to visit the net. He had talked the matter over with some other Indians, and they had come to the conclusion that either a windegoo was at the bottom of it or the meechee munedoo (the devil). I laughed at his fears, and told him I would help him to try and find out who or what it was that was giving us this trouble. I went with him to the place, where we carefully examined both sides of the stream for evidences of the clever thief. There was nothing suspicious, and the only tracks visible were those of his own and of the many dogs that followed him to be fed each morning. About two or three hundred yards north of the spot where he overhauled the net there rose a small abrupt hill, densely covered with spruce and balsam trees. On visiting it we found that a person there securely hid from observation could with care easily overlook the whole locality.

At my suggestion, Papanekis with his axe there arranged a sort of a nest or lookout spot. Orders were then given that he and another Indian man should, before daybreak on the next morning, make a long detour and cautiously reach that spot from the rear, and there carefully conceal themselves. This they succeeded in doing, and there, in perfect stillness, they waited for the morning. As soon as it was possible to see anything they were on the alert. For some time they watched in vain. They eagerly scanned every point of vision, and for a time could observe nothing unusual.

"Hush!" said one; "see that dog!"

It was Cæsar, cautiously skulking along the trail. He would frequently stop and sniff the air. Fortunately for the Indian watchers, the wind was blowing toward them, and so the dog did not catch their scent. On he came, in a quiet yet swift gait, until he reached the spot where Papanekis stood when he pulled in the net. He gave one searching glance in every direction, and then he set to work. Seizing the rope in his teeth, Cæsar strongly pulled upon it, while he rapidly backed up some distance on the trail. Then, walking on the rope to the water's edge as it lay on the ground, to keep the pressure of the current from dragging it in, he again took a fresh grip upon it and repeated the process. This he did until the sixty feet of rope were hauled in, and the end of the net was reached to which it was attached. The net he now hauled in little by little, keeping his feet firmly on it to securely hold it down. As he drew it up, several varieties of inferior fish, such as suckers or mullets, pike or jackfish, were at first observed. To them Cæsar paid no attention. He was after the delicious whitefish, which dogs as well as human beings prefer to those of other kinds. When he had perhaps hauled twenty feet of the net, his cleverness was rewarded by the sight of a fine whitefish. Still holding the net with its struggling captives securely down with his feet, he began to devour this whitefish, which was so much more dainty than the coarser fish generally thrown to him. Papanekis and his comrade had seen enough. The mysterious culprit was detected in the act, and so with a "Whoop!" they rushed down upon him. Caught in the very act, Cæsar had to submit to a thrashing that ever after deterred him from again trying that cunning trick.

Who can read this story, which I give exactly as it occurred, without having to admit that here Cæsar "combined means for the attainment of particular ends"? On the previous visits which he made to the net the rapid current of the stream, working against the greater part of it in the water, soon carried it back again into its place ere Papanekis arrived later in the morning. The result was that Cæsar's cleverness was undetected for some time, even by these most observant Indians.

Many other equally clever instances convince me, and those who with me witnessed them, of the possession, in of course a limited degree, of reasoning powers. Scores of my dogs never seemed to reveal them, perhaps because no special opportunities were presented for their exhibition. They were just ordinary dogs, trained to the work of hauling their loads. When night came, if their feet were sore they had dog sense enough to come to their master and, throwing themselves on their backs, would stick up their feet and whine and howl until the warm duffle shoes were put on. Some of the skulking ones had wit enough, when they did not want to be caught, in the gloom of the early morning, while the stars were still shining, if they were white, to cuddle down, still and quiet, in the beautiful snow; while the darker ones would slink away into the gloom of the dense balsams, where they seemed to know that it would be difficult for them to be seen. Some of them had wit enough when traveling up steep places with heavy loads, where their progress was slow, to seize hold of small firm bushes in their teeth to help them up or to keep them from slipping back. Some of them knew how to shirk their work. Cæsar, of whom we have already spoken, at times was one of this class. They could pretend, by their panting and tugging at their collars, that they were dragging more than any other dogs in the train, while at the same time they were not pulling a pound!

Of cats I do not write. I am no lover of them, and therefore am incompetent to write about them. This lack of love for them is, I presume, from the fact that when a boy I was the proud owner of some very beautiful rabbits, upon which the cats of the neighborhood used to make disastrous raids. So great was my boyish indignation then that the dislike to them created has in a measure continued to this day, and I have not as yet begun to cultivate their intimate acquaintance.

But of dogs I have ever been a lover and a friend. I never saw one, not mad, of which I was afraid, and I never saw one with which I could not speedily make friends. Love was the constraining motive principally used in breaking my dogs in to their work in the trains. No whip was ever used upon Jack or Cuffy while they were learning their tasks. Some dogs had to be punished more or less. Some stubborn dogs at once surrendered and gave no more trouble when a favorite female dog was harnessed up in a train and sent on ahead. This affection in the dog for his mate was a powerful lever in the hands of his master, and, using it as an incentive, we have seen things performed as remarkable as any we have here recorded.

From what I have written it will be seen that I have had unusual facilities for studying the habits and possibilities of dogs. I was not under the necessity of gathering up a lot of mongrels at random in the streets, and then, in order to see instances of their sagacity and the exercise of their highest reasoning powers, to keep them until they were "practically utterly hungry," and then imprison them in a box a good deal less than four feet square, and then say to them, "Now, you poor, frightened, half-starved creatures, show us what reasoning powers you possess." About as well throw some benighted Africans into a slave ship and order them to make a telephone or a phonograph! My comparison is not too strong, considering the immense distance there is between the human race and the brute creation. And so it must be, in the bringing to light of the powers of memory and the clear exhibition of the reasoning powers, few though they be, that the tests are not conclusive unless made under the most favorable environment, upon dogs of the highest intelligence, and in the most congenial and sympathetic manner.

Testing this most interesting question in this manner, my decided convictions are that animals do reason.