Your Dog Is a Logician

Koala, a black Labrador, rests. She's wearing her guide harness.
Koala loves to cuddle

Guest Post by Deni Elliott

Guiding Eyes Koala and I have few conflicts, but those that we have get tiresome for the person-side of the partnership. Licking. Koala is a licky dog. I don’t like to be licked. I think I have found a solution to the licking conflict and realized something more about canine language comprehension.

I’m not unreasonable. A quick kiss now and again is appreciated and fair exchange for an ear scratch or a snuggle. But, spare me what became a nightly routine: The enthusiastic leap when I invite Koala to come up on the people bed for a cuddle, ending with her upper body on my chest and nose at my chin. “Oh, you let me up on the bed!” her body language says. LICK. LICK. LICK. “I’m so happy to be up here!” Rapid tail wag. LICK. LICK. LICK. “I’m such a lucky dog!” LICK LICK LICK. My plaintive, “Enough!” or commanding, “Off the bed!” ended the licking, but ignored Koala and her intent. This was not how I wanted to end the day with my canine partner.

Recently, I invited her up on the bed and, as she came close to my face, I calmly and nicely said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed.” Koala stopped. She lay down next to me with more restraint than usual, nose close to my chin. Her tongue slowly reached out to touch my face. Again, I said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed.”

She stopped. Sighed. Relaxed against my side so that I could stroke her head. Soon she shifted to her back so that I could rub her belly. No licking, just a peaceful, happy dog. A few minutes later, I said that it was time for her to go to her own bed, which she did without protest and without being rejected. I heard Koala settle down on her dog bed next to her Golden Retriever sister and thought about why my warning worked.

Conditional reasoning starts with compound sentences that use “If, then.” Dogs know the “if, then” construction. Sometimes the conditional is time, such as when Pam says, “We’ll go for a walk, and then I’ll give you dinner.” Koala and Cali know the concepts of “walk” and “dinner,” but on hearing this sentence, they head for the door, not the dinner bowls. More often the conditional is action: “If you get the paper, then I’ll give you a cookie,” “If you sit quietly for a few minutes, you’ll get your dinner,” “If you come here, then I’ll rub your ears the way that you like.” The “if, then” condition sets up a trust relationship between dog and human. Dogs that stop coming when called do so because they think that their humans have fallen down on their part of what should happen when they obey.

Koala’s understanding of the “if, then” connection when I said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed,” was even more complex. This sentence had a condition — If you lick — but a negative consequence. Koala needed to turn the sentence around to reason, “I don’t want to get off the bed, so I better not lick.”

And even more complicated was her realization that she’d have to get off the bed in a few minutes anyway to go to her own bed and that that part of the nighttime routine was not a punishment. The question was whether she could control her licking so that she got a cuddle on the people bed for a few minutes first.

Koala’s success was evidence for her ability to master human language and what is implied by what her people say. Its mastery that all of our dogs are capable of achieving. The limitation is with us humans, who often fail to see how asking our dogs to use their conceptual abilities can make life easier for both humans and canines.

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Cali’s Pseudo-Marshmallow Test

Cali, a golden retriever, smiles happily and wears a colorful bandanna after her grooming.

Cali went to the groomer a few weeks ago. Our groomer, conveniently located around the corner, has a nice antique brass coal hod in the entryway, usually filled with dog biscuits. And cleverly located at golden-retriever-nose height.

Cali beelined for the cookie basket, which had only three biscuits. She looked at them, at me, at them, etc. I gave her one, then handed her leash over to the groomer.

A couple of hours later, I returned to pick Cali up. She came out from the back and headed straight to the basket. I gave her one of the remaining cookies, and stood chatting with the groomer and paying the bill for a few minutes.

When we looked back at Cali, she was standing at full attention, chin resting on the edge of the basket, staring at the one remaining biscuit. She could easily have taken it; we hadn’t been paying close attention. The groomer even said that most dogs do, indeed, help themselves. She was impressed with Cali’s manners.

I saw that as Cali’s version of the marshmallow test, and I was pleased that she showed self-restraint and good manners. She’s not always so disciplined, but she has never taken food that wasn’t hers, and she’s generally a very Good Dog.

Cali’s Quiet Competence

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I was in charge of puppy lunch the other day.

Puppy lunch is Deni and Koala’s name for the midday treat ball break that Koala has trained Deni to give her. The time keeps moving up; it would be more aptly named Puppy brunch, since Koala starts asking for it around 10 am, but that is a different story. Deni and I call it PL, as if Koala, and now Cali, won’t know what we’re talking about. Right.

But I digress.

Koala gets about a quarter-cup of kibble in her large orange treat ball. Cali now gets a smaller amount of kibble in a smaller yellow treat ball. Before anyone howls about unfairness, keep in mind that most dogs stop getting puppy lunch at about 4 months of age. Koala is over 4 years old and Cali is 6. Neither needs puppy lunch, but Koala has everyone convinced that she must eat multiple small meals a day to survive.

Also, Cali doesn’t seem to care. When I gave her a larger treat ball, she lost interest in it well before it was empty. Her lack of fanatical, desperate obsession with food is the least golden-ey thing about her.

They get PL in the downstairs TV / dog play area.

I’ve written in the past about how good Koala is at avoiding obstacles and keeping her treat ball from rolling under things. This large open area is easy for her. She rolls and chases the ball the full length and width of the room, vacuuming up the kibble as it falls out.

Cali has a different strategy. She takes her ball to the dog bed that is in a corner. It’s got walls on two sides and the sofa on the third. She stands in the open end, and gently bats her ball around the small, contained space. It can’t roll under the sofa because the dog bed blocks the bottom opening. This gives her a very easy way to keep track of the ball, get all of the kibble, and stay out of Koala’s zooming, looping path.

This simple strategy shows Cali’s characteristic calm, almost offhand, intelligence. She figures things out and makes the world work for her, in a quiet, unassuming way. She’s fine letting Koala’s exuberance claim the spotlight, and she doesn’t seem to mind that Koala’s treat ball fun lasts a bit longer.

It’s similar when the girls are picking up their toys (which does not happen often enough). Koala leaps and runs and bounces around, flinging toys toward the basket. One occasionally lands inside; others land nearby. She’ll toss the same toy at the basket 3 or 4 times, growing increasingly agitated — at the lack of praise and cookies from Deni. Cali, meanwhile, slowly gets a toy and thrusts it into my hand. (She and I have not worked much on putting things into the basket, for which I take full responsibility.)

Cali’s not always quiet and calm; she’s true to her golden heritage when visitors come or we meet a human, any human, walking down the street. She’s as wriggly and excited to meet a new friend as to greet an old friend. But I really do enjoy her thoughtful approach to problem solving.

The Making of a Cherry Monster

Cali with her tennis ball, in the shade of a cherry tree
Cali discovered delicious snacks under the cherry trees.

It started out innocently enough. Cali wandered over to that nice shady corner of her yard by the cherry trees. One day, she found something red that smelled delicious. She ate it. She found more of those delicious red balls and ate them, too.

I noticed and told her to cut it out. She carefully spit out the cherry pit that was in her mouth and wandered away.

If only it were that simple.

Soon Koala discovered cherries. She taught Cali that if you swallowed the pits, you could eat a whole lot more cherries, faster, even after one of the mean policemoms caught you and told you to stop.

We went from a pit spitter and a pit pooper to … well, you know.

Then Koala packed up and went back home to Florida. Cali had to figure out stealth cherry chomping on her own. She’d keep an eye on me to see if I was watching. If I was talking on the phone or (!) went inside, she’d steal over to the cherry patch and grab a few cherries. She’d still spit the pits if she felt as if she had time to dine more leisurely. But, if she saw that I’d looked her way or — worse — was walking over to ruin her snack — the gobble rate would speed up.

I chased her away from the cherries. She went back. I threatened to make her go inside. She stayed away for a few minutes but was always drawn back. I cleaned up the dropped cherries. She found more. The call of the cherries was irresistible.

She got very sneaky. She’d wander around the yard feigning nonchalance. If I didn’t react, her loops would take her closer and closer to the cherries … Or she’d head that way and glance casually over her shoulder. If I wasn’t paying attention (or she thought I wasn’t), she’d pick up the pace and head right there. If I was watching, she’d change direction, look again, react appropriately … this meandering ultimately always ended at the cherry feast.

Finally, nearly all the cherries were ripe. I picked several million one Sunday morning. A friend helped me pick most of the remaining billions of cherries one evening after work. We cleaned up the dropped cherries pretty well. Cali went into deep depression.

Now, the only cherries left are too high for me to reach, even with a ladder.  The birds and squirrels help Cali out by dropping and knocking them down.

But Cali has pretty much moved on.

She discovered the raspberries this week.

She picks the low-down ones, being careful to avoid the spiky branches. When I am out there picking, she’ll stick her nose into the bowl and try to steal the fruits of my labor. I tell her to go get her own raspberries. She does, even burrowing into the bushes to go after a particularly juicy berry.

There aren’t as many raspberries, and they have no pits, so I don’t worry as much about her eating those. But somehow, Raspberry Monster doesn’t have the same ring.

Cali and the Magic Box


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Cali’s head whips around. Her body follows her nose. She’s on the scent.

She started doing this at her second or third “nosework” class — as she ambled around, haphazardly looking for the target. Suddenly, she’d catch the scent and be off, following that now-beloved birch scent to the magic box. All she had to do was touch this box and her devoted servant (me) would start showering her with praise and treats. Really good treats. Yum.

Cali “got it” very quickly. When practicing, I have to put her in the bedroom and close the door so I can hide the magic box. She trots out eagerly, nose in the air. Within seconds, that nose whips around and she’s dancing beside the box.

The road to nosework expertise is not without bumps. At one point, Cali started bashing the box with a large, soft paw. When we switched to cardboard boxes, she thought they might make a nice snack.

Despite the minor hiccups, Cali continues to progress in her scent-detection abilities. She’s putting them to work daily. Though Jana enjoyed the concept of smell walks throughout her life, Cali had never been interested in sniffing her way through town. Now she thoroughly investigates the many (many, many, many …) places along our daily walks that other dogs have marked. I never knew it could take so long to walk around a parking lot!

She’s suddenly developed a deep interest in squirrels, too. Montana squirrels are a lot more interesting than California squirrels, apparently. Especially the one that hangs out near the veterans’ apartment building next to our apartment complex. Oh, and the one that raids our bird feeder any chance it gets, whom Cali seems to enjoy watching.

Back in “nosework” class, we’ve moved from hiding the scent in boxes to moving it around. Cali quickly grasps each new step — at least, in class. Watching her try to understand the new “rules” at home is interesting. She is a living illustration that content and context both affect learning. In plain English — don’t change everything at once. She did find the scent hidden in a plastic container this morning, as well as under the sofa and on a shelf. She’s is following her nose for sure; she can’t see where I have hidden the tin with the scent stick. She’s not very methodical in her search, but she is thorough. And she gets very excited when she finds it.

What’s great about the scent game is that we can play it all winter, indoors, with little changes, and – so far — Cali’s enthusiasm hasn’t faded a bit.

 

Freedom!

Cali lost her head over Thanksgiving. We spent the week at her Favorite Place in the World, also known as Deni’s Lolo, Mont., house. We were sharing the holiday with Alberta and Mack, two lovely dogs who live there.

Well, the most important thing to know about Deni’s Lolo house is that it has a lot of land and is surrounded by even more open, unfenced land and national forest.

The first day, we set out for a walk around the property and, well, Cali lost her head. She took off running and she ran and ran in giant loops around the meadow, up and down hills, in and out between trees, around and around and around, for several minutes.

Cali, wearing a cowboy hat, smiles broadlyThe first time Cali spent a summer in Montana, I decided that “Don’t Fence Me In” should be her theme song. When we returned last summer, we stopped at Packer Meadow, which is at Lolo Pass, right on the Idaho — Montana border, about a 30-minute drive from Lolo. Koala was with us, and the two dogs did the same sort of “lost-our-heads, can’t-stop-running” exuberant celebration (see the video for a tiny sliver of their romp).

There is nothing more joyful than watching a dog run free. And dogs seem to know when they are truly free, versus in a large, open, off-leash, but fenced area.

Cali has a good life. Every day, wherever we’ve lived, I’ve taken her someplace that she can play ball and run around off leash. But it’s nearly always a yard or park that is a contained, fenced play area. She loves it, but she knows the difference.

Acing the Physics Final, but …

 

What is it with dogs and physics?

Many dogs, including Cali, can calculate the exact place to jump into a river to intersect the tennis ball or stick that is floating along with the current. They do this while racing at top speed along the riverbank. Those same dogs can perform gorgeous acrobatics as they run and leap high into the air to catch a flying Frisbee. Cali executes stunning leaps over hills and turns gracefully in the air to catch her beloved tennis ball. Most dogs can catch a tiny piece of popcorn as it sails through the air, artfully dodging the other dog or dogs angling to snatch the same treat.

These calculations require a complex combination of skills that I, personally, have never mastered. They need to understand geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and, yes, physics. They can perform these feats while running at top speed and rarely, if ever, crashing into anything. Miraculous. They are better multitaskers than any human. These dogs could easily ace a college physics final exam.

Why, then, is gravity so hard for those same dogs to comprehend?

I play ball with Cali on the grass outside our apartment. There’s a fairly steep hill, and I often throw the ball up the hill. Cali races after it, catches it or picks it up, and sometimes, brings it back to me.

This is where we run into the gravity problem. She often drops the ball next to me, on the hill. The ball rolls down the hill. Cali gives it a perplexed look … and sits there, waiting for me to throw the ball again.

But I don’t have the ball. It’s several feet away, at the foot of the hill.

No matter how often this happens, Cali just doesn’t seem to understand.

I ask her to put the ball in my hand. She drops it. It rolls. I ask her to get it again. She looks at me as if I am crazy. I get the ball and throw it.

We repeat this cycle several times a day.

How is it that she understands calculus and trajectories but not gravity? Did she skip the first weeks of class, snooze through the midterm — and only show up for the more advanced stuff?

There is, of course, another possible explanation.

It could be that Cali finds it more entertaining to watch me fetch the ball than to get it herself. Nah, that couldn’t be it …