SOONER or later, someone is going to ask Bo, the 6-month-old Portuguese water dog who moved into the White House this week, if he knows the answer to a simple question: Who’s a good boy?
The question will of course be rhetorical, since Bo, whose raison d’être is to be furry and sweet, has significantly fewer performance expectations than his master. But it will by no means be idle, at least not to the psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers and kissy-face dog owners who for centuries have pondered the mysteries of canine consciousness. What, they ask, does a creature that lives to chew shoes and chase tennis balls really know about himself and his surroundings?
These questions are intriguing enough when applied to household pets — do they know why they’re not allowed on the couch? That we are coming home again? That the houseguests do not like to be sniffed and jumped on? — but downright trippy when it comes to dogs like Bo. All of a sudden, photographers shoulder one another aside to snap his picture, and the president of the United States scampers behind him.
Yes — or he soon will, said Cecelia Ruggles, a Connecticut dog breeder who owns Stump, the Sussex spaniel who won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club show this year. She is also an owner of J. R., a bichon frisé who won Westminster in 2001, and several other champions.
“Oh, they know they’re famous, and they definitely get an attitude,” she said.
Like many people in the dog business, Ms. Ruggles takes a fairly anthropomorphic view of her animals’ cognitive abilities. “What distinguishes show dogs from other dogs is that they realize what’s going on, they know what they’re doing,” she said. “That’s what makes them who they are.”
J. R., for instance, knows how to make an impressive entrance at a press conference. “He waves his paws — it’s his signature,” Ms. Ruggles said. “It’s not something we taught him to do, it’s just something he does.”
But many dog owners are quick to tell stories about the precocity of their pets (often, long after the interest of the listener has waned), and skeptics chalk these tricks up to personality rather than brains. Even people who have studied the intelligence of dogs are doubtful that Bo has any clue he is an international media star.
What dogs do know, said Professor Coren, is their position within their social group, whether they are at the top or the bottom of their pack.
“They know about comfort, and they know how much they can demand and get away with,” he said. So with the first family treating him like royalty for the time being, “that might be equivalent to fame. He might think he has groupies.”
By that standard, Bo’s perception of his surroundings won’t be all that different from any other well-pampered family dog, he said.
“I’m certain there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of dogs who are owned by blue-collar workers who really feel that they are extremely special,” Professor Coren said.
Based on the behavior of previous four-legged White House occupants, it is hard to draw too many conclusions. During the George W. Bush presidency, Barney the Scottish terrier had his own Web page on www.whitehouse.gov (which he shared with the Bushes’ other dog, Miss Beazley), and showed his gratitude by biting a Reuters reporter during the administration’s waning days. Socks and Buddy, the Clintons’ cat and dog, drew enough mail that Hillary Rodham Clinton assembled a book of letters, though Socks’s nastiness to Buddy got him gifted to Betty Currie when the Clintons left the White House.
Perhaps a better role model for Bo was Millie the springer spaniel, who not only “dictated” a book to her owner, Barbara Bush, but also gave birth to a camera-ready litter of puppies.
The idea that a dog could tell a red carpet from a housebreaking pad may sound far-fetched. For centuries, however, the mysteries of animal awareness have occupied some of mankind’s most respected thinkers.
Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Catholic philosopher, believed that animals possessed just enough consciousness that people should spare them outright abuse, if not the frying pan. René Descartes, who divided the world into two distinct substances, mind and matter, said that animals were purely mechanical beings that lacked an inner life (a classification that rings hollow to anyone who has heard the noise a beagle makes when you step on its tail). Darwin, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant also tried, unconvincingly, to wrap their heads around animal minds.
But canine cognition has become a serious science in the past few decades. More or less.
Starting in the late 1990s, Marc Bekoff, then a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, used his dog, Jethro, to conduct a landmark study he called “The Yellow Snow Project.”
“For five winters I collected piles of yellow snow on the path where I walk my dog in the mountains outside of Boulder,” he said. “Then I would move them along the bike path and watch what Jethro did.”
“He basically spent a longer time sniffing the other dogs’ urine than his own,” Mr. Bekoff said.
Professor Coren, who has studied Mr. Bekoff’s work (animal psychology is a tight-knit field), said that the yellow snow experiment offered proof that dogs have a sense of themselves versus other dogs. “It’s the first level of consciousness, knowing that you are there and a separate entity from everyone else,” Professor Coren said.
His own claim to fame is a series of tests conducted in the early 1990s that measured how many sounds, signals and gestures dogs could comprehend. He concluded that the average dog had roughly the same cognitive abilities as a 2-year-old human, a finding that is now commonly cited among pet owners.
“It’s helpful because when dealing with a dog, you can ask yourself, ‘What would I expect of a 2-year-old kid?’ ” he said.
Still, no matter how many pointy-headed tests are dreamed up, there will always be pet owners who believe their dogs possess the magical ability to apprehend their larger place in the world.
“People love to humanize their dogs,” said Mathilde DeCagny, the Hollywood trainer who worked on “Marley & Me.” “But Bo is not walking in the White House right now thinking, ‘I scored!’ ”
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Some animal rights advocates have criticized the Obamas for adopting a dog from a private breeder rather than from a shelter. But the choice somehow seems less cruel once you remove the suggestion of Oliver Twist-like emotional despair. “I have gotten so many e-mails today from people saying it’s too bad they didn’t get a mutt from the pound who would know that he is special,” Mr. Bekoff said.
“But come on,” he laughed. “Bo doesn’t know that, and neither would a pound dog.”