Fidolatry (or Does Your Dog Like the iPad?)

It’s a bit odd to see dogs reacting to screens. Dogs generally have poor eyesight. Their ears and noses, far superior to ours, guide them through life. If you say to a dog, “honey, you smell great!” they will take that as complimenting their nose, not their perfume. Dogs can even tell time through scent. Among the confusing panoply of acoustic frequencies emitted by computers, their ears are still fine enough to discern the crinkle of a potato chip bag in the basement. And lest we forget, dogception is now a thing.

Because dogs depend heavily on their ears and noses, their perception of the world differs considerably from humans. We tend to anthropomorphize our dogs, says animal behaviorist Alexandra Horowitz in her book Inside of a Dog. To anthropomorphize means to attribute activity to things in terms of human form, understanding, agency and goals. We anthropomorphize dogs when we interpret a dog’s behavior in terms of human likeness, motives, perceptions, actions and responses.

Humans have a built-in tendency to anthropomorphize things. People claim they see religious faces in clouds, on barns, oil cans, and toast. This process is called face pareidolia, and partially accounts for human belief in ghosts and gods.

Sleeping for Scent

Consider a dog asleep on your bed. You say something like oh, how nice! Fido likes soft mattresses and pillows. You assume the dog likes the bed because it is soft and comfy. Because you like to sleep on soft surfaces, you assume dogs must be like you that way. Turns out dogs, says Horowitz, like to sleep on beds because that’s where we are, or, more precisely, that’s where our smells are, and dogs like to be any place around their people (25-26).

Over millennia of evolution, dogs have honed their instincts for the tiniest aspects of human behavior: our needs, emotions, sensitivities, gestures, habits, voices, intimations, intonations, breathing, and especially our smells. People sometimes watch dogs or go dogspotting, but the reality is dogs are far more attuned to you than you are to them. Dogs can both detect and anticipate psychological, emotional, and physiological changes in people and their environments.

Not Getting It Right

There are many ways anthropomorphic approaches toward animal welfare can lead to great harm. Conscientious consumers prefer cage-free eggs because they believe it is more humane, even though studies show conflicting and contrary implications. A lot of folks enjoy taking their dogs to fireworks on Fourth of July. We like fireworks, so why wouldn’t the dog? And yet, there is growing awareness that this causes pain to their sensitive ears. One reason dogs hate scented shampoos and perfumes: it disrupts their ability to smell, to get around in life, the same way blindfolds make it difficult for people (who are visually oriented) to walk, cook, stack cups, read, and use computers. The scents make dogs tolerable for us, but intolerable for the dog.

I used to do an exercise with students in a usability class. (Broadly defined, usability refers to a process of making systems and interfaces easier to use). I applied a small bit of grease to eyeglasses, covering both lenses except a small spot. Working in pairs, one student completed a visually demanding task while the other observed, listened, and took notes. The exercise requires students to understand how visually impaired users struggle with computer use. The observer students also benefitted by becoming better attuned to the needs of others who have distinctly different ways of approaching technology.

A Dog’s Self-World

Is there a similar exercise for dogs? Horowitz reintroduces the concept of an umwelt. Developed by the early twentieth-century animal biologist Jakob von Uexküll, the umwelt represents another individual’s “subjective self-world,” their truth, their universe – in usability language, their mental model. von Uexküll proposed that anyone who wants to understand an animal must first consider their life space: their umwelt.

Alien umwelt in Men In Black.

Everyone has an umwelt, including people. All of us have our own subjective realities (what he called “soap bubbles”) in which we are forever caught in the middle. Humans, in our bubbles, Horowitz writes, “are very attentive to where other people are and what they are doing or saying… we and every other animal dovetail into our environment: we are bombarded with stimuli, but only a very few are meaningful to us.” (21-22) What becomes meaningful dominates our umwelt, while what’s less meaningful recedes.

Shared Umwelts

To be sure, dogs and people share some experiences. When I walk Roxy, neither of us is likely to notice the pothole down the street, until a car drives into it. I might hear a thump or splash. Roxy will hear four letter expletives. I look up and take note of the darkening sky, urging Roxy to do her business soon so we can get home. Roxy drops her snout into blades of grass saturated with urine from other animals and “studies” them.


Sometimes Roxy perks up when the wind stops or shifts, pointing her nose in the air. Is she detecting changes in humidity? Fresh new animal scents? Where we live strong winds blowing over cow pastures herald stormy weather. We both smell that, though our responses diverge. The same events occur around us, but our internal perception of the events sometimes differ, shaped by the different machinery in our brains. A smell-first style of cognition will shape experiences differently than one that is vision-centered.

Why dogs rely on smell more than other senses is a question largely answered by history. Throughout their evolution, dogs and their wolf ancestors found that having a strong sense of smell was sufficient enough for them to carry on. For them, the visual world serves rudimentary functions, possibly and primarily in support of the other senses and tasks required of a dog for survival. There’s no need for a dog to appreciate artwork or see anything more than yellows, blues and violets.

Determine Perceptive Capabilities

Horowitz recommends two ways that people can better understand the umwelt of dogs. First, determine what the dog can perceive: what can it see, hear, smell, and/or otherwise sense. The biological and behavioral studies of dogs show that their minds are organized primarily in terms of smell. By contrast, human minds, at least in the west, are organized around sight. Walter’s GoPro effort notwithstanding, visuals will not fully be grasped by the dog mind. We see sand and trees and other people and a beautiful beach. The dog sees relief from the heat, fun, water, and a giant toilet.

Understand Functional Tones

The second task is to understand what Horowitz refers to as the functional tone of an object. A functional tone is similar to what usability folks call an affordance, which refers to the intended purpose of an object as determined by its shape and size. For example, a chair is meant for sitting, a knob meant for turning. In usability terms, human-interface interaction breaks down when people cannot determine the affordance, or the use-purpose, of tools, buttons, menus and widgets.

Affordances, like functional tones, are both structurally and culturally constructed. In the 1960s, researchers in Appalachia were startled to find unread Bibles on shelves next to entrances of homes owned by illiterate people. After all, aren’t books meant to be read? Residents quoted passages uttered by preachers, but could not locate texts in the book. Why, then, did they have a Bible? For them, the “Bible” served a corporeal, sacred and mystical purpose not unlike a Russian icon (See Humphrey, Richard. “Development of Religion in Southern Appalachia: the Personal Quality.” Appalachian Journal. 1:244‑254, Sp 1974.) Of course, there’s also the widespread practice of using books as door stoppers.

Dog Cultures

As social animals, dogs might have some kind of heritable dog-culture through which they have learned habits, and perhaps one that developed independently of humans. How does the animal act in the world? Are they animals or “persons”? They think they are also persons, and deserve a place at the dinner table. A dog looking around a room does not see human things: s/he sees dog things. Can it be eaten? Sat upon? Peed on? Dug? Sniffed? Chewed? When dogs look at the clouds, do they see demi-dogs and if so, should we call it “Fidolatry?” God spelled backward is “Dog.” The mind boggles.

Plenty of things that have meaning to us simply don’t exist for dogs, unless dogs are trained (that is, en-culturated) by humans. Through training, a leader dog might comprehend an affordance for door knobs, footstools, mailboxes and bottles. Just as affordance problems lead to web user errors, breakdowns over functional tones often lead to conflict between dogs and people. So too, the response can be problematic. A dog scolded for peeing on the carpet doesn’t come to understand that a carpet is only for walking or laying upon; the dog only associates the activity with the human response, as that thing i get yelled at when i am on it.

An Impossible Task?

It may be technically impossible to grasp the umwelt of others. Paraphrasing the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, no one can step into the same river twice. Or, as a pizza guy told me, “hey wise guy! you can have the pepperoni or you can have a knuckle sandwich with the pepperoni!” Experience is always changing, from time to time, person to person, pizza to pizza. We may both see the same tree, Anthony deMello once said, but we will really not see the same tree, especially if the other individual is a curious dog.

In A Fly Rod Of Your Own, author John Gierach relates the story of being unable to photograph a large salmon he caught. Nobody in his party had a working camera. The fish regained strength and returned to the depths. At that moment it struck him that “the salmon is not the photo of the salmon, which will never quite stand up to the living memory anyway. The salmon is the salmon itself, here and gone so fleetingly that half an hour later you’ll wonder if it was even real.” (19) I fly fish a lot, and wish I had that problem.

We struggle to grasp the totality of another’s umwelt because of the singular nature of experience, a puzzle that occupied the minds of philosophers engaged in the early 20th century movement known as phenomenology. Our efforts to symbolize, map, depict and transfer experience are limited. In the film The English Patient, the map becomes the primary reality, leading to a horrific outcome for the major characters. Experiential incommensurability is a condition of life, which requires great patience and attentiveness to ameliorate. We get into trouble when we conflate the figure with the ground, the utterance with the context, the animal with the human. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson once said, “the major problems of the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” We suffer when we try to shoehorn reality into our own umwelts.

And before I forget, the car world has seen its share of mismatched affordances. After 18 years, the rollout and installation of the TPMS light (low tire pressure indicator) continues to confuse and infuriate drivers as to obviate its intended safety purpose. No one has crashed yet, but my dog did eat pizza today and barf on a tire, and no amount of soap bubbles will clean it.