Being a Dog, Fast and Slow

Got a dog who 90% pays attention and then 10% ignores you? A dog you think is stubborn or lacking in smarts? A dog whose ears seem to stop working whenever you really need them to? A dog with intermittent recall that’s sometimes brilliant and other times poor? A dog who can manage about 10 paces of heel walking and then it all goes to pot?

Are you facing some of the bigger challenges of living with a dog? Extreme predation where every leaf flapping sets your dog’s heart racing and you can’t trust them with the neighbourhood cats? Aggression towards people they see on walks? Fearful reactions in the face of completely benign stuff they come across?

Perhaps you’ve even got a dog whose behaviour is bordering on the pathological? A dog who chases cars despite having nearly lost their life to one? A dog who spins or chases lights and shadows? A dog who seems to border on compulsive, where they can’t be interrupted from unproductive and repetitive behaviours?

Despite having a good understanding of these problems and the canine brain, I’ve always struggled with how to describe the root of the problem to clients. Struggled, that was… until I read Nobel Prize-winning Economist Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

He describes how humans have two systems at work in their brain: System 1 and System 2. Even he struggles to name these two systems and admits that neurologists would pooh-pooh his phrasing. However, his explanation is just perfect.

Let me give you an example and then explain how it exemplifies his two systems…

On Thursday last week, my kettle gave up the ghost. Since then, I’ve been boiling water on the hob and making coffee that way. The past three mornings, I’ve put the water on to boil, got a cup out of the cupboard, put freeze-dried coffee in the cup… and then picked up the kettle and tried to pour cold water in it instead of using the water boiling on the stove.

What’s up with that?!

Kahneman gives many examples of such habitual behaviours, as well as other emotional behaviours and cognitive biases in his book. They’re all ways of thinking that we fight every day.

The way he describes it is that we have two systems at work. Roughly, if you’re down with brain anatomy, they’d correspond to the limbic system and the cortex. Roughly speaking, of course, since neuroscientists don’t all agree about the names, let alone what goes where. If you’re not down with brain anatomy, think of it as the white gelatinous mass inside the brain, and the wrinkly grey matter on the outside.

Now you don’t need me to tell you that humans have very advanced brains. We can get stuck ships out of canals. We can do long division. We can calculate the distance to the sun and the weight of Neptune and how big the universe is. We can make rockets that go into space and drills that go deep into the earth. Better still (in my opinion) we can create literature, music, poetry and art that moves the very soul of us and transports us to other worlds.

But we also have very defective and irregular, irrational ways of thinking. We take mental shortcuts. For example, we judge people more kindly if we’re holding a warm drink than a cold one. We decide that one thing is better than three other absolutely identical things and then, when we’re told they’re absolutely identical, we won’t believe it and we argue the toss. We hold prejudices and stereotypes. If we’re sitting in judgement over somebody, we make ‘fairer’ decisions after lunch than before. We think it’s okay to steal a few paperclips and pens from work but not to steal a fiver from the drawer of our boss. We’d think nothing of taking a cookie from an unattended tray, but we’d probably not dip our hands into an unattended cash box.

Kahneman, like many others, wanted to explore why we humans act so irrationally. Having taken on board literally thousands of psychology studies, he details various ways we think in bizarre, counterintuitive or biased ways. By bias, by the way, I simply mean ‘system errors’ – ways of thinking that are in violation of logic.

His explanation is that we have two thinking processes at work. The first is System 1. This roughly corresponds with the limbic system if you’re looking for labels. Kahneman says System 1 operates automatically and quickly. It doesn’t take much effort and there’s no sense of voluntary control. It does learn – of course it does – and it does so mostly through association as well as practice.

System 2 is our grey matter, our neocortex, our thinking brain. This bit of the brain is very much about choice and voluntary action. It’s about inhibition and learning rules of living in social groups. It’s about moderation and self-control.

Needless to say, when I poured cold water from a defective kettle into my cup, my System 1 brain was in the driving seat. System 1 is instinctive, emotional, often innate. It’s fast but it’s sloppy and it makes a lot of errors. It’s the seat of our fears but also of the rewards we get from learning. It learns associations – it’s the Pavlovian bit of our brain. It’s the ‘gut feeling’ brain that Malcolm Gladwell explores in Blink. If you want to know more about the crazy contrary behaviour of the human System 1, neuroeconomist Dan Ariely’s books are filled with the quirks of human thoughts and behaviour. I’m fascinated by System 1 – not least because it’s the bit we share with all other mammals, but also because it’s in charge of the weirdness of the human experience. It’s our dirty little homunculus, our inner toddler, our simian brain. It’s as likely to be our Mr Hyde as it is to be a star athlete or a super-skilled tightrope walker.

System 2, on the other hand, is good at identifying anomalies, at critical thinking, at doing tax forms, at maths, at playing musical instruments, at learning languages, at figuring decimal points and taking voluntary actions. It’s what makes us able to live in enormous groups. It’s Mozart and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It’s Archimedes and Aristotle, Locke and Hume, de Beauvoir and Sartre.

Kahneman explains that both System 1 and System 2 are always running. It’s not like one goes off-line when the other comes online. That said, System 1 runs automatically and System 2 needs to be engaged more consciously. When scientists debate animal consciousness, what they’re really debating is System 2 stuff. Are animals really just instinct machines, going blindly through the motions, following millions of years of evolution of behaviour, or are they in any way aware of what they’re doing and able to voluntarily adapt and modify their actions?

Of course, in his book, Kahneman is talking about humans. However, I think the same is very true of animals. Systems 1 behaviour can often get in the way of Systems 2. Sometimes, it not only gets in the way, but it derails it completely.

For your dog, System 1 stuff is all the stuff they were born knowing how to do. That might be broader animal behaviours like sleeping, drinking and eating. That could be species-specific behaviours that all dogs can do, like barking. It could even be more likely related to their breed, like pointing or digging for critters. Breed might also modify species-specific behaviours, for example making some breeds more likely to bark than others. System 1 is their default setting. It is of course affected by their age and development: male puppies don’t cock a leg to pee, but many, many male dogs (and some female dogs) will cock a leg without you – or anybody else – every teaching them to. I’m going to call the dog’s System 1 their Inner Dog Voice. System 1 seems far too system-y.

The System 1 Inner Dog Voice is in charge of your dog’s likes and dislikes, the things they find rewarding and the things they find scary. You don’t need to teach your dog to bark, nor to hump, nor to sniff other dogs. It’s all stuff your dog is born knowing how to do. Did you teach your dog to like liver? To eat rumpsteak? To love bones? System 1 is hugely affected by socialisation, which can switch on certain behaviours or leave them switched off pretty much forever.

If you think about it, early social experiences are all about teaching the dogs to manage their Inner Dog Voice. It’s about teaching Aussie shepherds not to stalk children, cattle dogs not to nip children’s feet, shepherds not to bark at strangers, terriers not to chase small furries into holes and dig tank traps in the lawn, shepherds and collies not to chase cars, bikes, joggers and cyclists. Early social experience is about exposing our dogs to the right stuff to help their System 2 override their Inner Dog Voices.

In particular, I love the way Kahneman explains how System 1 makes system errors. I think this is so true of so many dogs. In his book Influence, psychologist Robert Cialdini calls System 1 behaviours ‘click-whirr’ behaviours. Like a pre-programmed piece of software, the world presses a button, and the brain’s internal software clicks into play, whirring into motion. This often happens before the System 2 brain has had a chance to say, ‘hang on… false alarm’.

In his book Principles of Learning and Behaviour, Professor Michael Domjan explores the evolutionary utility of these ‘click-whirr’ System 1 behaviours. He discusses ways in which ethologists have tried to identify the precise environmental and contextual stimuli that trigger System 1 behaviours. For instance, if you’re a Mister Turkey, what is it precisely about Missus Turkey that floats your boat? If you’re Mister Stickleback, what is it about another Mister Stickleback that triggers your aggressive behaviour?

Sometimes, ethologists can identify the very precise and narrow criteria known as sign stimuli that trigger a behaviour. For instance, for birds, chick-feeding behaviour is often triggered by both the movement of their parent’s beak, but also by a visual cue like a spot. If you’re a stickleback, then it’s the red belly of your foe that triggers territorial aggression.

As I understand it, System 1 is what’s in charge of knowing and understanding these environmental signs and telling the body ‘do this now!’

Whether these are innate and instinctive sign stimuli that we don’t have to teach a dog to understand, or whether they’ve learned them through association, they’re often largely involuntary, speedy and often without conscious thought.

System 2, on the other hand, is responsible for inhibition, control and rational decisions.

So, not unlike us, dogs face a daily battle between doing what is easy and relatively intuitive, and doing what the Big Brain tells them to do.

The Dog Inner Voice and the Voice of Reason.

The Voice of Reason is everything that you do have to teach a dog. Like how not to jump on Auntie Vi, how to wait for their bowl to be put on the floor, how to walk nicely on lead, how to follow every damn one of those ridiculous human cues to do stuff like sit or lie down or stay put without destroying the house to get out. It’s the stuff they definitely aren’t born knowing. It’s most of the stuff that should come with a manual called, ‘How to Get By in a Human World’.

Going back to those original scenarios – the dogs whose ears sometimes don’t function, the dogs who can’t stop chasing cats, the dogs who bark at strangers, the dogs who snap at invisible flies – a lot of these things are where System 1 is working overtime and System 2 is asleep at the wheel.

All this said, we shouldn’t get too judgey about our dogs’ lack of ability to be reasonable, to follow instructions, to behave in ways that help them survive and thrive in a human world.

To be honest, knowing exactly what I know about the Human Voice of Reason and how often it fails, I think it’s a bit rich to expect our dogs to have a bigger and better Voice of Reason than we do. Seen anybody be rude on social media today? That’s a Voice of Reason Fail. Put cold water in your coffee? Voice of Reason Fail. Expect your dog not to pull when you can’t quit your 20-a-day habit? Voice of Reason Fail. Couldn’t resist the chocolate bar? Voice of Reason Fail. Got mad when someone stole your parking spot? You know my answer. Perhaps not so much as a Voice of Reason Fail as your automatic System 1 kicking into ‘click whirr’ mode when your own System 2 is asleep at the wheel.

I see a lot of System 1 errors with the dogs I work with. Dogs who chase cars, for instance. Coming back to Domjan and his discussion of those very specific sign stimuli that press play on a dog’s default software, what if a flash of light and motion is a sign stimulus that says, ‘Chase Mode: On’? Before System 2 has had a chance to say ‘Dude, it’s just a car,’ I think some dogs definitely have a disconnect between the behaviour they’re doing and reality. I see this most often when the dog is doing stuff to the wrong thing: humping legs, chasing bicycles, barking at snowmen…

System 1 is also in charge of emotional responses and emotional behaviour. When I see, for instance, someone asking their dog to sit as something scary approaches and passes, what I see is a dog who is being asked to have better willpower than me in front of a takeaway menu. My System 1 voice is much louder than my System 2 one saying, ‘Have the steamed broccoli’. You’ve guessed I end up with the food that’s not good for me, despite my best intentions

How does this knowledge affect how we might think about dogs and how we might train them.

First is to give them space and time for the System 2 voice to click in. If we want our dogs to make rational decisions, we have to put a bit of thinking space and physical distance between them and the stuff that presses their System 1 buttons. We need to give them time to make their mind up. We need System 2 to have time to say, ‘That’s a car, dude! They are zero fun to chase.’ Remember, too, that when System 1 commits to a course of action, it’s very difficult for System 2 to even chip in once it realises a system error has taken place. I see this so often with dogs who are caught out when startled. They behave aggressively and afterwards, their guardians say, ‘they looked really sorry’. Of course they did. That Voice of Reason with the manual to surviving in the human world, that System 2 voice, got to say, ‘Dude, are you insane? You’re guarding an acorn and now the humans are mad! Better throw out some appeasement behaviours…

Second, we need to stop asking our dogs to have great and ultimate control over their System 1 unless we have actively taught it, tested it in safe surroundings and generalised it so that it is absolutely automatic in all circumstances. Unless you can restrain yourself from making a correction every single time you see something wrong on the internet, take a step back, human, and remember it’s really hard to have self-control. And even if you manage to keep your fingers or words to yourself when someone makes an egregious error, if you can’t stop the dirty little thoughts you’re having about why they’re wrong, don’t judge your dog for counter surfing, for guarding a plant pot or for barking at a scarecrow.

Third, the bigger and more complex the taught behaviour, the more challenging it will be to do it, especially in situations where System 1 Inner Dog Voice is shouting and screaming. In my view, recall and walking on a loose lead are two of those very complex taught behaviours that we need to stop expecting our dog to just be able to do automatically. You might also add jumping on guests and barking in excitement to that list. Start by asking yourself whether the dog was born knowing how to do what you’re asking. Then ask if it takes people in general a really long time to train it. If the answers were ‘no’ to the former and ‘yes’ to the latter, you’re asking for a complex, taught behaviour. Ask yourself if what you are asking your dog to do is more complex than asking an average 8-year-old to do division when it’s just started snowing. If it’s hard, if it’s complex and if it requires System 2 to use a lot of energy to run the software, then when circumstances get challenging, the Voice of Reason software will crash and Inner Dog Voice factory installation is going to kick in.

Fourth, we need to consider how complex and demanding it is for our dogs to ‘have manners’ or ‘be polite’ when they’re fearful, frustrated or excited. That level of control takes a lot of effort and self-mastery. If I tell you that in virtually every single bite case I’ve ever done, I think the dog was fairly restrained under the circumstances, perhaps we’ll learn to respect dogs a little for barking when they could have bitten, for inhibiting their bite when they could have caused enormous damage, then perhaps we can see that there’s a lot of control being exercised in circumstances where humans under the same pressures might not be so circumspect.

Fifth, we need to truly appreciate the need to teach our dogs System 2 stuff rather than just expecting it. Want them not to bark at strangers? Teach them strangers are safe and what to do instead. Want them to cope with people coming into your home? Teach them that it’s normal and what to do instead. Want them to recall perfectly when in a world of scent? Teach them a recall that is so automatic that System 1 doesn’t end in a scrap about it. We also could do with stopping using tools to enforce control rather than teaching dogs to control themselves from within.

Most of all, we need to have better control of our own System 1. You know, the Inner Human Voice that says, ‘Sure! Go pet that strange dog you don’t know!’ That Inner Human Voice that wins the battle when your dog has jumped on you for the nth time and you end up shouting rather than sticking to your extinction protocol. That Inner Human Voice that says, ‘Dogs should just respect us!’

We need to control our own System 1 that sticks a hand out to an unfamiliar dog… that grabs a strange dog to put up onto a groomer’s table or into a car… that System 1 error that makes us think bad stuff won’t happen to us because our inbuilt optimism bias makes us think that we’re less likely than everybody else to get bitten or get hurt. System 2 is risk averse and does the calculations, but it takes much longer to embed that learning unless something actually happens to us to teach us a lesson. System 2 also gets sloppy. It’s the biggest reason I can think of why people work with their dogs to overcome problems and, in one poor split-second error of judgement, we do what we’d been doing that ends up with the dog biting us and default to our pre-installed software. Thus, people who’ve overcome their urge to chase their dog when the dog’s stolen something, to overcome urges to grab collars or manipulate dogs simply because it was posing a problem in the past are then horrified to find they accidentally slip into that behaviour 18 months later and the dog bites them apparently having ‘learned’ not to. It’s why I tell my clients not to slip into complacency if their dog has ever injured someone. It’s easy to think the dog is over it, but when human System 1 errors collide with canine System 1 errors, it can be a perfect storm of circumstances that end up causing a lot of misery all around.

Not only could we do with understanding our dogs’ System 1 better, knowing how their behaviour is influenced by emotions but also understanding their innate Inner Dog Voice, but we could also do with understanding our own System 1 voice better. But at the same time, I think we should also cut ourselves some slack. It’s hard to have a neocortex that’s built on top of some ancient brain structures and patterns that sometimes go astray. It takes effort for dogs and humans to run System 2 stuff, especially under pressure. Most of the time, it all functions very smoothly, but we do need to remember that fatigue, pressure, time constraints and hunger all play a role in System 2 falling asleep at that proverbial wheel. That’s as true as it is for humans as it is for dogs.

P.S. My System 1 was going to call this post ‘Dogging, Fast and Slow’ as a play on the title of Kahneman’s book. Luckily, my System 2 kicked in and told me that’d attract all the wrong kind of readers. Hopefully this word is so far down the post that the much more rational and logical search engine crawlers don’t end up thinking this post is about voyeuristic hanky-panky. System 1, be damned.

P.P.S if you are here for d*gging, may I point you in the direction of your System 2 and wish you good luck?