A Cognitive Moment

Koala is learning to open doors.

This is actually tougher than it sounds. Teaching Jana this very task, 13 years ago, led to the moment that I first realized how smart Jana was — and how phenomenal dogs’ cognitive abilities are.

The task is opening a closet door. Doors with lever handles, rather than round doorknobs, are easier. The dog can easily be taught to push a door open (or closed) when the door is ajar. It’s also pretty simple to teach a dog to press the lever to release a latch and push open a door that opens inward. (Koala’s got that; see the video.)

The challenge is opening a door that needs to be released, then pulled outward.

Jana had a solid understanding of “open” and “close” the door and was easily opening the inward opening doors when we turned to this challenge. To open a latched door, she’d do an “up,” putting her front paws on the door. She’d release the latch by pressing the lever with one paw, and her weight would push the door open. This worked great for doors that could be pushed open, but presented a physics problem for doors that opened outward. The very weight needed to release the latch also pushed the door shut again.

As a new trainer, I could not figure out how to tell Jana what to do. (Honestly, I still don’t know how I’d communicate it.) I put her favorite toy behind the door and encouraged her to keep trying. Watching her repeated attempts was frustrating. But then …

Jana had an epiphany.

She put her paws on the door, as she had so many times before. She paused, looked at the door, then, slowly and deliberately, moved her right paw a couple of inches to the right. She placed her paw firmly on the doorframe. Then she triumphantly pushed the lever and pulled toward herself in a fluid motion. The door opened.

I was astonished.

That one moment was enough. Jana had solved the challenge.

Koala needs to make that same cognitive leap. She’s older (Jana was several months old at the time) and has had far more training. And Koala is a top-notch problem solver. I’m betting that she’ll get it after only a few tries. I’ll let you know when she does.

One thought on “A Cognitive Moment

  1. Hey there,
    So I have a question about something that’s always confused me. People say you should ignore your dog when they get spooked by something, the reason being that if you comfort them, they will think that, since you are comforting them, there must really be something to be afraid of, or else you wouldn’t be comforting them. Are dogs capable of that kind of thought? What should I do if my dog gets spooked?
    Thanks. 🙂


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