Your Dog May Be a Math Genius

Jana, a golden retriever, wears a graduation mortorboardAnyone who has ever out two treats in her pocket and then given her dog only one knows that dogs can count.

Well, it’s more nuanced than that.

Despite many hoaxes and dubious claims, dogs can’t actually count, at least not without extensive training — but dogs are aware of quantities and relative sizes, without any training at all. And, it turns out, they use the same part of their brains that humans do to assess the approximate number of items in an array or group of items.

About those treats — they definitely know when they are being shorted, or the other dog is getting a bigger piece. And they always know when there is (or recently was) a treat in your pocket. They have excellent noses, you know.

Researchers at Emory University (including my favorite dog researcher, Dr. Gregory Berns) put their well-trained dogs back into the MRI and showed them various groupings of black dots on gray backgrounds. This study doesn’t sound like it was as much fun for the dogs as the ones where they got ordinary treats and good treats so the researchers could see how the pleasure centers in their brains lit up … but I bet the dogs were paid well in treats after all the dots.

The published paper talks a lot about the different parts of the brain, but the upshot is that humans and dogs (and lots of other mammals, apparently) react differently when seeing a small quantity of something (fewer than 4) vs. a larger quantity. This useful skill, called numerosity, benefits both predator and prey animals in their search for food or attempts to avoid becoming food.

The dogs in the study had no math training prior to their MRI experience. The advanced mathematical skills that (some) humans possess use the same area of the brain. I wonder how far the above-average dog could get in math with the right teacher.

 

The saddest sounds

10-week old Cali, a golden retriever, lies on a brown dog bed
Don’t leave me …

A recent Bark column muses on humans’ susceptibility to manipulation by dogs. Specifically, by the sounds they make in sadness. Sadness that occurs only because we humans are not meeting their expectations.

Boy do I know how that works.

When Cali was a tiny pup and Jana a beleaguered 8-year-old with a new baby sister, I made a point of taking Jana for a (very short) solo walk each day. This was partly to get Cali used to being alone briefly. The first time we did this, within seconds, the saddest, most mournful howl I have ever heard wafted out through an open window. I was probably a whole 10 feet from Cali but, you know, there was a wall in between.

Cali has deployed this mournful howl a few additional times over the years. (She’s 7 now.) She’s added to her repertoire, too. She has a range of sounds, including sighs, snorts, scowls (ok, those are silent), exasperated exhalations, grumbles and mutters under her breath, and more. And, yes, a whine. It’s a tiny whine, very soft and short. It’s also very, very sad. Heartbreakingly sad. This whine is used only when Cali is outside and wants to come inside, and no one is there to make the door magically open.

This, naturally, happens only when Cali has refused to come inside despite being offered several opportunities, and I have given up(!) and gone upstairs to work. Within oh, about 3 minutes, there’s that tiny whine. I could easily miss it but somehow it penetrates whatever fog of concentration I am in. When I go back downstairs to let her in, Cali is always happy, relieved, and reproachful, all at once.

I’m not the only one to be expertly and repeatedly manipulated by a sad dog.

My doggy cousin, Jaxson, has created a magical combo, a unique whining sound plus guilt-inducing look, that gets him the most coveted seat in the house: Literally in between his mom and dad. The one space on the sofa he’s theoretically (very, very theoretically) not allowed. There’s nothing unique about dog whines, of course. Whole orchestras could be woven out of different dog whine. Jaxson’s whine is unique in that this specific note is deployed only when he’s on the sofa but not between them. That is, only one pair of hands can reach him to pet him and only one person’s attention is focused on him. The unique sound effectively terminates this intolerable condition.

The Bark column mentions research that found that humans with pets are more susceptible to animal distress vocalizations than other people and that “dog whines sounded saddest of all, and sadder than cat meows.” Other research has found huge changes in canine vocalizations as a result of their domestication. Sure. They’ve got our number. They’re pulling out all the stops in their quest for the upper hand … er, paw … in the household.

 

Sympathy Pains?

Jackson, a boxer, steps gingerly off the sofa
My leg hurts … or does it?

Jaxson’s dad had knee surgery and was using crutches to get around on his heavily bandaged left leg.

That morning, and the previous day, Jaxson had been fine. But, soon after Dad got home, Jaxson started favoring his left (rear) leg.

He was holding the leg up or touching the floor gingerly, limping around. Outside, though, he raced along the fence to chase a squirrel. Occasionally he seemed to forget his injury inside too, rushing to the window to angrily warn trespassers to get off his property if they dared walk past the house.

What was going on? For two days, we all debated whether Jaxson was injured or simply mirroring his dad’s pain. As Dad got better, Jaxson’s foot, too, spent more time on the ground. He eagerly went for a long walk (no limping) and joined Dad and a friend as they wandered down to the nearby pond.

We’ll probably never know what was going on in his mind…

This is the same dog who demonstrated his problem-solving — and engineering — skills earlier in the summer. The whole family was working in the yard. Well, the humans were working. As I heard the story, Jaxson was supervising. That’s thirsty work. And the humans hadn’t thought to provide their supervisor a cool drink.

Jaxson noticed a tiny leak in the garden hose, though. He idly licked at the drops. Then he got an idea.

He started scratching at the dirt under the drip. By the time he got yelled at for digging, he’d excavated a small hole. He wandered away when he was told off.

But several minutes later, Jaxson went back to check on his engineering project. Yep; it had worked. The dripping water had filled the hole, providing him that drink of water he was after.

Dogs like Jaxson show me — maybe show us all — that no matter how good we think we are at reading dogs, no matter how much we think we know about them and what makes them tick, we still badly underestimate them. We also are too quick to assume that they are doing something “bad” — digging — when, really, they’re just solving the problem of our human failure to meet their needs. Again.

 

 

Are you talking to me?

Cali, a golden retriever, looks quizzically at the camera.
Are you talking to me?

Be careful what you say; little ears are listening. And I don’t mean your children. It turns out that dogs do listen to what we say, as well as our tone of voice And they can often tell when we’re talking to them — or about something that matters to them.

A recent study, ‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog‑directed speech looked at what they called “dog-directed speech,” which resembles baby talk. Their canine test subjects were all adult dog guests of a boarding kennel whose humans gave permission for their participation.

An earlier study on this topic had played recorded voices to dogs who were alone in a room. The dogs didn’t pay much attention. To me, that shows their intelligence. Would you respond to a disembodied voice telling you that you were a “good boy” or to “come here”? I hope not!

The newer study is far more respectful of canine intelligence. They also used recorded speech, but an actual human, matching the gender of the voice, was in the room.

Dogs were more likely to look at, approach, and interact with the researcher who was present when dog-directed speech — high-pitched dog talk — than boring human talk in a normal pitch and register.

The researchers also investigated whether dogs had a preference for content of speech.

The dogs showed the most interest in high-pitched, emotional speech directed to them, with relevant content. Dull content in an interesting tone was no more appealing to them than interesting content said in a dull tone.

What does this tell us? Perhaps that:

  • Dogs learn to associate meanings with particular words and phrases, as well as a particular tone of voice.
  • People tend to use a higher-pitched, more excited tone when talking to dogs, so dogs learn that what is said in these exaggerated tones is meaningful.
  • Dogs learn that people might say interesting things in a dull tone and then nothing fun for dogs happens, so they learn to ignore even favored words (“walk” or “cookie”) when it’s clear that the human isn’t addressing them.

Additional layers develop as a specific human builds a relationship with a specific dog.

I’ve always talked fairly conversationally to my dogs, and they do respond to relevant phrases and questions, even when I say them in a “normal” tone. I believe that dogs learn to read their humans and are able to tell — with a familiar person, though not necessarily with a researcher — which speech is relevant to them, regardless of tone.

I also think that it’s about time more people studied communication with dogs!

Social Dynamics

A large white structure that served as the dog play pavilion at the Guiding Eyes seminar
Photo by Michelle Russell

Watching dogs figure out the social dynamics of their constantly changing groups is fascinating. Many people assume that it’s OK to put dogs who’ve never met together in any group configuration and they’ll just instantly become friends and play nicely together. That’s an odd assumption, particularly considering that most people also don’t think that dogs communicate particularly well.

At the Guiding Eyes weekend I recently attended, I got to see how a group of experienced dog professionals handled group play. The hotel had given us the use of a covered pavilion — the type where wedding receptions might be held. It was a large space, walled in by a low fence and covered with a heavy, waterproof white cover.

Eighty guide dog teams attended the event, and they were given time slots for dog play. In addition, people wandered in and out of the play area during unscheduled evening and morning hours.

The trainers brought exercise pens to use as dividers and other equipment. It hadn’t even occurred to me that they’d divide up the space, but it was a great idea. They created three smaller play areas, never putting more than three or four dogs together. Each section had a couple of trainers keeping watch. Before putting a dog into a play yard, the trainer removed the dog’s collar, which had tags that could get caught on something (like another dog’s teeth), and replaced it with a plain collar. The dog’s partner was told the color of this temporary collar.

Trainers watch playing guide dogs at the Guiding Eyes seminar; the dogs' partners are seated along the side of the play area.
Photo by Michelle Russell

As the dogs played, the trainers watched them constantly. If a dog became overly excited or rough, the trainers used shepherd’s crooks, slipping the hook under the dog’s collar, to gently guide the dog in a new direction. During the times I was watching, I never saw any play morph into aggression or any dog get hurt, and dogs rarely needed separating.

When a dog was done playing, she’d get her collar back and return to her partner. Once, two similar-sized black Lab girls ended up with play collars of the same color. Though each partner was sure she had the right dog, the trainers scanned their microchips and checked the numbers against a list they’d brought, just to be 110 percent sure that no dog mix-up occurred.

The microchip check is probably not needed in the average dog day care or dog park, but the other precautions the trainers took are. The Guiding Eyes dogs are all very well trained, and many dogs at the weekend conference knew each other — they’d been in the same puppy raiser region or in the kennels for training at the same time. Even so, the trainers were careful to keep play groups small, match size and energy level, and monitor all the dogs’ interactions.

That’s how the pros do it.

That contrasts with what I often see at day cares and other places where dogs play. An indoor dog park a trainer friend recently described, for example, has one huge play space and minimal or no supervision. The managers allow as many as three dozen dogs to play at once. Sounds scary; much as I like the idea of an indoor play space, I doubt I’d feel comfortable letting my dog play there.

Even dogs who know each other well need close supervision when they are playing. In a large group, play can quickly escalate to aggression or bullying. Even dogs who know each other well can get over-excited or possessive of a particularly valuable toy or chew. That’s another thing; the trainers made sure that the only toys in the Guiding Eyes play pavilion were tug ropes, which the dogs, mostly Labradors, loved.

From breaking up the space to using shepherd’s crooks to ensuring constant supervision, the trainers provided a great model for dog play.

What’s so funny?

Cali seems to laugh; pictured with Dora and Jana
What’s so funny, Cali?

What do dogs think about human laughter?

People often ask me this question. I think that dogs understand that laughter is a good thing; it means that the person is happy — with them, with life in general. I also think that some dogs actively try to get their humans to laugh.

img_3944-copyJana had a toy called a “gefilte fish. She’s had several, actually. Instead of squeaking when squeezed, the fish says, in a distressed voice, “Oy, vey!” It then makes a bubbling sound. When Jana first got that toy, she squeezed it a lot. Each time, I would laugh. She soon took to standing in front of me and “oy, vey-ing” the fish. She’d watch carefully, and if I seemed about to stop laughing, she’d “oy vey” again. She’d give a little tail wag each time she got a laugh from me.

Cali tries to get me to laugh, too. If I am preoccupied or otherwise not paying enough attention to her, she’ll lie on her back and madly bicycle her back legs so that she propels herself around the room. I laugh, of course, at her silliness. She looks slyly at me, her signature sideways look, and makes sure I am watching her.

Dogs not only understand human laughter, they have a way of laughing too. I’m far from the first person to suggest this. In Man Meets Dog, respected ethologist and Konrad Lorenz describes a smiling, panting, most often seen during play, that he characterized as dog laughter. Bark magazine also ran an article discussing dog laughter.

It’s not only dogs; researchers have found that rats, chimps, and other nonhumans laugh. Why not?

So, you’re not imagining it if you think that your dog is laughing (at you?) or enjoying your laughter. Many dogs have a great sense of humor. Even more dogs have a silly side, like Cali. Sharing a joke is just one more way to deepen and enjoy our relationships with them.

 

Speaking Dog

One golden retriever bows to invite another to playI saw a sad little exchange today. A brown dog and a black dog met, and, while their humans chatted, the brown dog play bowed and invited the black dog to engage. The black dog’s human reacted by jerking his dog backward, away from the brown dog in what seemed a defensive or fearful response. Brown dog’s human pulled his dog away too, then leaned down and gave brown dog a stern talking-to. It seemed that both humans completely misunderstood the play bow and the friendliness in brown dog’s approach and demeanor.

This happened just a few minutes after a conversation with a friend who had described her communication with her birds. She doesn’t teach them English; she doesn’t exactly speak their language, but they have all evolved a communication that goes beyond words and human language to describe a relationship and mutual respect and understanding.

I know little of birds; I do strive for that sort of communication with the dogs in my life, though. The dogs learn many words of English (Hebrew, too, in Jana’s case). They also excel at reading human body language. But there is another layer that comes from a deep, close relationship. It is communication. It might be language, but it’s not something anyone outside the group would understand. When a person gets to that level of communication with her dog (or her bird), it is very satisfying and intimate. Jana and I had that kind of connection, and it’s what makes her loss so hard.

Most dogs seem to try very hard to understand their people; many succeed at understanding lots of people and dogs, even cats, if they live with a cat or two. It would be nice if more people made the effort to learn the basics of dog-to-dog and dog-to-human communication.