Animals and Perceptions of Reality

When I was a kid, we used to try to fool our dog, Hairy. We’d make a stuffed dog “growl” and “bark” at him. Hairy was always game, responding to the play with growls and barks of his own, but I’ve always wondered just what his thought process was. Did he understand it was play? (And it’s obvious that animals enjoy play.) Did he on some level believe the stuffed dog was a real dog?

Modern technology makes such questions even trickier. Here, via Boing Boing, is a video of a real dog reacting to a $15 battery-operated toy.

I find it unlikely that the real dog — Isabel — would believe she were encountering another animal. For one thing, the toy isn’t going to possess the scent of a living creature. For another, its “bark” sounds artificial. But what does Isabel think? She’s fascinated by the interloper, but what is her perception of it?

On a similar note, my wife gave me a fake crow for Christmas last year. (Yes, I’m serious.) It’s not a real crow, and it doesn’t even have real feathers, but it certainly looks real. Its wings are spread wide, and if I swoop it around the room, the cats get tense. “Why is there a crow in the house?” they seem to say. One of the cats runs like hell. The others wonder if they might not be able to catch the crow.

When its not tormenting my animals, the fake crow lives on one of our windows. One of our cats — Max — periodically attempts to examine the crow. He’s very curious about it, but since it’s out of his reach, he feels thwarted.

How does this fake crow affect my cats’ views of the real crows outside?

I wish there were a way to get deeper inside animal minds.