In Her Own Time

Koala, a black Labrador, relaxes on a hammock-style dog bed

I wrote last week’s post on Koala and her reluctance to move to a big-girl bed a few weeks before it was published. Since then, she went on a long visit (with Deni of course) to Deni’s mom’s house. There, she did not have a crate. And, she decided, upon returning home, that she was ready for her grown-up bed. She wouldn’t even look at the crate. Crates are for babies, she said. Why would I want one?

The crate is gone.

I think it is more about choice than about where Koala sleeps. She wants to — and should be able to — make choices about things that affect her quality of life (to a reasonable extent, of course … Cali does not get to do the grocery shopping, for example, and neither does Koala).

I’ve had an interesting email conversation over the last couple of weeks with a reader who has taken her dogs’ communication and ability to make choices to an unusual level. She uses an approach similar to what I have seen a few other people do, which is to present two options and have the dog choose a hand. Left for yes, right for no, or left for “go for a walk” and right for “play ball.” Things like that.

I have not taught this to very many dogs, but Jana and Cali picked up the idea pretty quickly. Cali’s favorite daily choice is between two tennis balls (yes, she’s a bit obsessed). Our morning routine goes like this: Walk to the park. She skips and dances ahead and has to be reminded not to pull. As we get close to the gate she literally wriggles with joy and excitement. She gets to the gate first and stands at attention, touching the gate with her nose. I open the gate and reach down to unhook her leash. She bounds into the park, turns and sits, looking eager and expectant. I pull the Chuckit and two tennis balls out of the bag. I offer her both balls. She sniffs each one deeply, sometimes wavering, then makes a choice. She watches carefully to make sure I don’t pull a fast one, swapping the balls. I put the rejected ball away, slip the chosen ball into the Chuckit, and throw.

Occasionally we have a variation: She somehow gets hold of a ball at home and carries it to the park. I throw that one.

She always carries her ball home from the park.

The point is that, along with getting to play her favorite game, (which is not what you think) she gets some control over that game. The game, by the way, is not fetch or catch. It’s: Run after the ball, grab it, then keep it away from everyone else, human, canine, avian, or whatever, in the vicinity. Occasionally let a human get it and throw it again. Repeat for as long as you can get the humans to cooperate.

Anyhow, in addition to that, Cali gets to choose. She takes her choice very seriously. There are other choices in her day. She occasionally gets to choose between two treats or two games; she might get to choose whether to go for a walk or have a play session; she often gets to choose which direction we go on a walk. But really, she doesn’t have that many choices in her life. The few areas where she gets to exercise some control are important to her. I think that’s true for Koala as well. And for every other intelligent creature, canine or otherwise.


What Is Dognition?

Jana dognition
In last week’s post, If Cali Were Brian Hare’s Dog…, I mentioned Dognition. What is it?
First: full disclosure. Jana and I were among the beta testers of the site, for which we received no pay, but Jana did receive the bandanna she’s shown wearing above. This is not a paid post or advertisement. It is my opinion, based on my experience with the site.
Brian Hare, whom I wrote about last week, is the co-founder and chief science officer. Dognition is a site that studies canine cognition through a series of games and experiments that site members do with their dogs, at home. The Dognition team includes some innovative canine cognition researchers. It is a clever way to gather a huge amount of information about a large variety of dogs. It’s also (usually) fun.
The initial set of games and exercises creates a “profile” of your dog. There are nine profile types, ranging from the “Ace,” a problem-solver with strong communication skills, to the “Protodog,” who, according to the brief description on the site, is “reminiscent of the first dogs that began their relationship with early mankind.” I am guessing that that’s a nice way of saying “can’t follow human gestures.” The writers on the site excel at couching bad news (“your dog flunked this test”) in very positive terms.
Renaissance DogJana is a Renaissance dog, good at a little bit of everything. I never finished the profile exercises for Cali, though.
The reasons are, I think, the site’s biggest drawback: Nearly all of the games require two people, and they are very hard to do alone. The site steps you through each set of exercises, and you have to enter information about your dog’s response before getting the next prompt. Another drawback (especially for multiple dog households) is that the exercises are repetitive.
I get it. They want data that they can use. They usually have a baseline exercise, which you do a few times, then the real one, which might have a few variations. For example, you might put a treat under a cup while showing the dog where it is. Then you might introduce a second cup, but still show the dog where the treat is. Then you might pretend to put treats under both cups but point to the right cup. Then you have someone hold the dog where she can’t see you and you hide the treat and point to the correct cup … you get the picture. You do each step three to five times. Jana can lose patience. When I am testing one dog, the other rapidly loses patience as she waits (and waits, and waits) for her turn. And I don’t have a second person here to cover Jana’s eyes or whatever else is needed.
So, those problems aside, I have learned a lot from Dognition. The site includes lots of articles and information on canine cognition. They do a good job of explaining the science behind the games and the profiles. And they send occasional tips, games, and suggestions that can be done by one person. I’ve gotten some great ideas for games to play with Jana and Cali and experiments to do with my students and their dogs. And I enjoyed finding watching Jana’s progress through the exercises. I’m curious about how much usable data the Dognition team has gathered and how they are using it.