Why do we, humans ask so many question when most kinds of animals don't ask any?
My dog Snookie stops at the entrance to a small footpath that leads back to the cabin. He waits for me to catch up. His ears are pricked and his eyes are directed at mine. It's his way of asking me if we are going to take this path home. His body is at a neutral angle so that he can go either way as soon as he gets an answer.
Over the years I have walked with Snookie, I have gotten used to reading his body language. I know that stopping at a trail head and looking at me is his way of asking me if we will be taking a path. I also know if he has a preference to take a certain trail, as he will inquire a little late. He asks after he has already headed a small distance down the trail he desires to take.
It's like indicating his wishes. I know this because if I don't go the way he has indicated, he will reluctantly turn back and follow me at a distance, head and tail lowered. If I turn around and wait for him he will stop and not catch up to me.
Should I concede and take the trail he wants, he's back to life, bouncing, happily out front, tail curled over his back.
Snookie looks to me for answers. So is he asking me questions? Leading questions even, with hopeful outcomes? I think so. Dogs seek information from cues and owners have a lot of answers for dogs.
A head cock is a dog's way of saying “what?” or “huh?”. Some dogs get close and look their owners in the eyes, as if asking them to repeat a cue. My dog Laney got really close to my face and looked me dead in the eyes when she wanted me to repeat something. She was on the look out for keywords of great value. The words “Jim” or “treat” or “walk” always caused Laney to give an intense look into my eyes until I said them again and she had received the needed information. Jim is a friend who Laney was very fond of.
Dogs also cock their heads when they are trying to figure out what is making a noise or where a sound is coming from. Sort of an internal questioning response, like a human scratching his head in thought.
I once had a Bernese Mountain dog named Buster who was given a little bowtie that played music when you pushed the center of it. Friends gave it to him for Christmas. We put it on poor, unsuspecting Buster and pushed the center.
Out came a high pitched, super speeded-up version of Jingle Bells. It caught us all by surprise, especially Buster. He sat there cocking his head back and forth wildly fast to the high-pitched music while looking at his belly. When it ended, he ran and hid under the table. We laughed because it looked so silly but we also knew how befuddled and uncomfortable it had made him. He could not determine where exactly the noise was coming from or what was making it but he did think whatever was making the noise was too close to him.
Dogs ask us for cues and information. I don't think it works this way with a horse, donkey or mule. In all my years working and hanging out with equines, I've never had one get my attention for the sake of an answer.
As herd and prey animals, equines get information through sensing and observation. Horses are keen observers of behavior. They have had to be to survive in the wild. Horses know who is fearful and who isn't. It's hard for a rider to lie to his horse. Instead of asking questions, horses just sense with their eyes, noses, ears, whiskers and hide. They read the cues around them and look no further for answers.
A horse named Clever Hans was so good at cue reading that he had most of the world believing that a horse could do math and understand German. Hans would paw out numeric answers when asked questions. He got a lot of right answers. Even his owner was convinced of his language and mathematical abilities.
A commission was put together in 1907 and an investigation undertaken to be sure this was the case. In the end it was determined that Clever Hans could only get correct answers when a person that he could see knew the answer. Hans was reading the subtle signs of tension and release on a person's face, as his pawing approached and then reached the correct numbers. His math and language ability were found a fraud.
This is a shame. Clever Hans never got enough credit for the remarkable thing he actually was doing. That thing, was picking up such subtle bits of information from people, that even the people themselves were not aware they were giving it. Hans had no need to ask people for cues, he just read them like cue cards.
Clever Hans was extraordinarily smart. He just wasn't smart in the way people wanted him to be smart at math and German.
Scientists have been working with apes on language and communication since the 1960s. The apes seem to understand how humans use language. Recently I have been reading “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by primatologist Frans De Waal. Frans talks about the apes that have learned American sign language.
When Washoe the chimp was asked what a swan was, having never been shown the sign, he signed “water bird”. When Koko the gorilla was asked what a zebra was, also having never been shown the sign, she signed “white tiger”.
Here's the thing that struck me. Frans writes that in all the years of working with apes on communication and sign language, no ape has ever used sign language to ask a human a question.
It would be amusing and humbling to think the reason was that they don't care what we think.
I think there's more to it then that. We humans put lots of value on words. But animals are wired to get information through much broader channels – watching, listening, smelling and sensing through their whiskers and hide. Receiving information through mere words would be clunky.
We have been spoiled by our keen ability for language. This allows us to question everything. Sometimes we humans would do well to observe more for ourselves and ask fewer questions. No question...!