Canine Smarts Behavioral Science Turns to Dogs for Answers

Part 2: How Your Dog and Your Kid Are Similar


Kaminski's Leipzig team attracted a lot of attention three years ago with their report on Rico, an exceptional border collie who was able to tell more than 200 different toys apart. Even more astonishing was the fact that he learned new concepts using the same principle with which young children learn the meaning of new words. Since then the owners of a number of dogs with similar abilities have contacted the institute in Leipzig. Apparently Rico the memory genius was not an isolated case.

Partly because of such sensational stories, dog research has "literally exploded" in recent years, says Britta Osthaus, a psychologist with the University of Exeter in Great Britain. Osthaus is examining whether dogs have a basic understanding of physical processes and can think logically.

Biologist Range is mainly interested in finding out which learning strategies dogs use. Using a touch screen, she wants to test whether the animals can transfer information from the screen to reality and whether, like people, they learn by a process of elimination. "The dog is just beginning to become a model organism for animal psychology," says Range, "and there is so much left to study."

Follow Guinness

Range has already shown that dogs use a learning strategy -- selective imitation -- that, until recently, was believed to be unique to human children once they turned a year old. She taught her own dog to push a handle to open a food dispenser. Every dog would instinctively use its snout to push on such a device. But Guinness was only rewarded when she used her paw.

Once Guinness had learned the technique, individual dogs were brought in to observe her. If Guinness had a ball in her mouth, so that it was obvious that she could not use her snout, most of the observers pushed on the handle with their snouts. But when they saw Guinness without a ball they usually used their paws. If Guinness chose the more difficult method for no apparent reason, the dogs apparently concluded that there must be some advantage to this behavior.

Young children behave in a similar way. If they observe an adult activating a light switch with his forehead instead of his hands, they only imitate the behavior if the adult's hands are free. In other words, they are clearly, and deliberately, choosing the eccentric method. But if the adult uses his forehead because he has his hands full, most of the children flick the switch with their hand.

It is no coincidence that the domestic dog's ascent to stardom in behavioral research coincides with its career as a lifestyle accessory. "In the past, dogs were mainly trained to obey, and many things were simply forbidden," says Range. "But if a dog only dares to breathe when his owner allows him to, it's difficult to study his cognitive abilities."

Border Collies Outclass them All

Nowadays dog owners send their beloved pets to agility training, where they balance on ramps and crawl through tubes. Some dogs attend "dog dancing" sessions, and puppy training has become all the rage. "Dog education has changed," says Range.

With this change comes clear evidence of cognitive differences. The breeds that were used for hunting or as herding dogs only a few dog generations ago have proven to be especially clever. Border collies like Rico and Guinness would probably be happiest watching over their own herds of sheep. "They simply want to work," says Range. American dog researcher Stanley Coren is convinced that the border collie is the most intelligent of the roughly 400 breeds of dog.

Judging by the numbers of volunteers who show up at Range's dog behavior laboratory, many owners are convinced that their dogs are exceptionally gifted. Range gets two to three inquiries a week from dog owners wanting to test their dogs for intelligence. The Leipzig researchers already have about 1,000 potential test dogs in their database.

"There is a village near Exeter where I now know every dog," says British researcher Osthaus. This is surprising, because her experiments are usually frustrating for dog lovers. "It's almost embarrassing to me, but with my experiments I tend to run up against the limits of dog intelligence."

Osthaus recently placed a trellis in her laboratory. The test dog was placed on one side of the trellis and the owner on the other. The animal was able to see its owner through the gaps in the trellis, and an opening was easily visible at one end of the trellis, which was several meters long.

And Cats?

After the dogs had slipped through the opening several times, Osthaus moved the barrier so that the opening was now on the opposite side of the room. "All 20 dogs ran to the wrong side first," says Osthaus. Apparently habit trumps canine common sense. A Doberman simply sat down where the opening had been, while another dog even tried to run through the trellis.

As clever as dogs are when it comes to all things relating to their masters, they fail miserably when logic comes into play. For example, dogs can pull a string to drag a piece of meat out of a box. But when Osthaus placed two pieces of string in a crisscross pattern, they always pulled on the string that led in a straight line to the meat. "They simply do not understand the connection through the string," says Osthaus.

Another experiment the Exeter psychologist performed offers some consolation to dog lovers. Osthaus repeated the test with a group of cats, a species that loves playing with strings. The cats, says Osthaus, "did far worse than the dogs."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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