Update on China the heroic dog

China the dog, picture by La Critica

China the dog, picture by La Critica

Last week Argentina Reporter wrote about China the amazing dog, who rescued an abandoned baby and snuggled him in with her pups.

Good news: the baby’s mother, who is only 14, has come forward and claimed the child, and welfare agencies are helping her grow accustomed to motherhood. Apparently she abandoned the baby shortly after giving birth because she was afraid of her parents’ possible reaction – another of those surprising cases where parents don’t realise their teenage daughter is pregnant, even at nine months. The young woman will receive support to help her raise the baby while continuing her high school studies.

Meanwhile, China’s apparent smarts and maternal instincts might not be so easily dismissed as mere anthropomorphic projection. La Nacion, which had the China update, cites recent studies that may go some way to explaining China’s heroic acts. Dog experts believe canines may be more intelligent than previously thought, and may even be able to make moral judgments. Depends on the dog, though – golden retrievers and border collies are clever, but pit bulls and afghan hounds are about as silly as they look.

The scientific claims were made during the recent Canine Science Forum, held in Budapest. Researchers at the forum believe that over thousands of years enjoying human company, dogs have developed a sense of right and wrong, as well as sophisticated cognition. The UK’s Daily Telegraph reports:

A decade ago, most scientists would dismiss the claims of dog owners that their precious pets could experience pain, excitement and other “human emotions” as sentimental claptrap that anthropomorphises the abilities of animals.

Now that dismissive view has been challenged by studies presented a few weeks ago at the first Canine Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary, which back the idea that the 10,000 years that the descendants of grey wolves have spent evolving alongside humans have had a remarkable effect on dog cognition.

In a remarkable experiment to probe canine cognition, Prof Ludwig Huber and colleagues at the University of Vienna put dogs through a classic experiment done with children in which an instructor demonstrates to a toddler how to turn off a light using her forehead, once with her hands clearly visible and once when wrapped in a shawl, so that she can’t use them.

When invited to turn the light off for themselves, toddlers who were shown the first version use their heads, but those shown the second use their hands.

The standard interpretation is that the first group conclude that there must be a good but non-obvious reason for using the forehead method, as otherwise the instructor would have used her hands. Dogs do the same thing in Prof Huber’s experiments, where they had to pull a lever to obtain a reward, lending support to the idea that dogs have a rudimentary “theory of mind.”