A Mind of Her Own

A dirt path, some tall grass and trees. Cali, a golden retriever, is hiding
Where’s Cali?

I was talking to a friend the other day who said of her dog,”She’s smart. She doesn’t obey, but she is smart.”

I said that obedient is not at all the same as smart, and maybe the least obedient dogs are some of the smartest.

There’s a lot of disagreement over how to define or measure “intelligence” in non-humans. Some dog writers and scholars equate trainability and / or obedience with intelligence. I disagree.

Life is certainly simpler and often more pleasant if your dog generally does as you ask. But, unless the dog is likely to face severe punishment for disobeying, I don’t think that following orders has much to do with intelligence.

Cali is a case in point. When it really matters that she listen, she usually does. But one area where we constantly clash is that, when we’re in an off-leash area and I decide it’s time to go home, she nearly always disagrees.

Cali is nestled among grass and weeds, well hidden
Found her

She’ll then play her favorite game, “Snake in the Grass.” She lies down in the tallest grass she can find and suddenly, coincidentally experiences a bout of total deafness.

She does this at home, too, but the grass is greener and shorter so she’s not actually invisible (unless she’s hiding among the raspberry canes).

It’s not that she doesn’t know what I want; she knows. She simply disagrees and is asserting her own agenda. Often, she’s right; our hike or play session was much too short. She is not at all sympathetic to the argument that I need to get back to work (she thinks I work far too much).

She shares her own opinions often — in choosing the direction of our walks or picking a toy or choosing to sleep downstairs instead of in her bed in the bedroom or any number of things. She can be very determined, too.

She knows her own mind, has preferences, and figures out ways to communicate them. I see these as signs of intelligence — more than simply and consistently doing as she’s told. Though that would be nice sometimes.

Creative Solution

A while back, I wrote about a solution that Koala found to the problem of her antler chew skittering away from her.

Those antlers are no less slippery when the dogs chew on them outdoors. But Cali recently solved that problem:

Cali holds an anther with the pointy end toward the grass

Cali pokes the antler into the soft ground

Cali lies on the grass, with the antler sticking out of the ground between her front paws

Once the antler is deep enough that it stays in place, Cali stretches out her paws, relaxes, and enjoys a chew.

Cali chews on an antler that is partially buried in the ground, so she does not have to hold it with her paws.

The antler stays right where she wants it.

It I pull the antler out and put it away, Cali sticks it right back in the ground the next time she wants to chew it. This seems like a similar type of problem solving to Koala’s use of another toy to hold the antler in place.

Koala seems to agree. When Cali walks away from the antler, Koala steps right in and chews the antler-in-the-ground.

I wonder what Cali will come up with in a couple of months when the ground is frozen …

Farewell to Chaser, a Dog Who Changed the (Dog) World

Photo of Chaser & Dr. Pilley, from Chaser’s Facebook page

How many dogs get a New York Times obituary?

I have to admit to a stab of apprehension every time I saw a post on Chaser the border collie‘s Facebook page since she turned 15. But in the end, I saw the news in the NYT: Chaser passed away last week peacefully, of natural causes. Her dad and trainer, John Pilley, passed away last year. Together, the two of them changed the way millions of people think about and understand dogs and the dog-human relationship.

Anyone who has spent significant time with a dog and really paid attention to that dog knows that dogs can pick up some human language. After all, the entire notion of dog training is based on teaching them to associate our words and gestures with specific actions. But Chaser took understanding of language far, far beyond simple cues and responses.

Chaser understood grammar. In fact, Chaser’s knowledge of grammar often surpassed that of my students. I had to teach them about subjects, objects, and indirect objects before they could understand exactly what she had learned to do …

Chaser hit the TV talk show circuit when she had learned to identify more than 1,000 items by name and category. She knew the unique names of 1,022 toys. More than that, though she could put each of her dozens of balls into the “ball” category while also recognizing each by its own name. Same with Frisbee-type disc toys.

OK, I’m pretty average as a dog trainer, and even I have taught dogs the names of toys and categories. Not as many as Chaser, but I knew it was possible.

But the grammar bit: She learned to understand requests that entailed taking toy1 to toy 2, which required her to distinguish both toys by name and understand which was the direct object (toy1) and which the indirect object (toy2).

It’s so much more than the grammar though. It’s the idea of that complex level of thought, understanding — and communication — occurring between a dog and a human. Chaser made it clear to anyone willing to see that dogs really can learn so much and that their limitations are more in humans’ inability to conceive of how to teach them than in their capacity to learn.

Which brings us to Dr. Pilley. Chaser was a brilliant dog. But many other brilliant and capable dogs have lived and died with no fame or recognition; without learning or reaching their potential. Dr. John Pilley showed the world what was possible. He pushed back against the doubt, the disdain, the dismissive derision of his colleagues and of the journals that demanded extraordinary testing and re-testing before publishing his research.

He was one of a very few dedicated individuals who believed in dogs’ abilities and who put in the hours and years of effort to make the world see what’s possible. Thanks to him and a few others, centers to study dog cognition are popping up at universities around the world and we’re learning more and more about how dogs think and learn and understand.

Very few animals are memorialized in the New York Times. But if ever a dog deserved such an honor, it was Chaser.

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.

Finding Shortcuts

When she’s done eating, Koala picks up her bowl and takes it to Deni. But she’s come up with a new approach. If Deni is not in the kitchen, Koala first goes to find her. She then takes the bowl to Deni. This saves her having to wander around the house carrying her bowl, which is not really her favorite thing to do. It’s a shortcut.

Each of Deni’s guide dogs has found shortcuts on walking routes they do often (by which I mean, more than once). Some dogs’ shortcuts are kind of offensive to human sensibilities. (Think: drinking from the commode when the water bowl is empty.) Others, like figuring out new routes home or ways to carry multiple toys at once, are clever.

But whether you like the shortcut or not, the idea that a dog can do that is pretty amazing. Well, it would be amazing to people who don’t believe that dogs can think and problem-solve.

Koala is smart in so many ways. I love watching her roll a treat toy around. She has an orange treat ball where Deni puts her “puppy lunch,” a little bit of kibble. Koala rolls it around to get the food out. She’s strategic about how she rolls it, carefully avoiding edges it could roll off or furniture it could roll under. It’s an intelligent approach to problem solving that could be seen as a shortcut; after all, it saves her having to go find a human if the ball gets stuck under a bed.

Many people interfere with dogs’ attempts to solve problems, maybe worried that the dog will pick up something he shouldn’t (a shoe?) or just spoiling the dog by doing things for him. But that can limit the dogs’ opportunities to creatively solve a problem. If you catch yourself stepping in to help the dog, hold off for a moment. Maybe your dog will do something brilliant!

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.

What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Cover of Gregory Berns's book What It's Like to Be a DogI’ve had a serious crush on Dr. Gregory Berns ever since he published his first MRI studies. Those showed that dogs’ brains’ pleasure centers light up when they catch the whiff of a beloved human (or dog). There’s so much to love about his papers and his book How Dogs Love Us. So I was really excited about reading his newer book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

It’s well worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But … it wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s some really cool stuff, like the explanation of how dogs’ brains look when they’re doing the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test. I’ve played around with that a bit with Koala and Alberta, though I lack access to an MRI machine. So I was very interested in his findings. It turns out that some dogs do well with deferred gratification and others … not so much. You might notice that I haven’t talked about doing a marshmallow test with Cali. I don’t need a fancy machine to tell me that she lacks impulse control.

I was a little disappointed with some of the detours from living dogs’ brains into the long-ish discussions of the brains of deceased seals and Tasmanians. And I was distressed by the chapter on dogs and language.

I know that any sentence that pairs non-human animals with language raises the hackles of many people, scientists and non-scientists alike. I also think that there are many, many definitions of language and that dogs, particularly those with close human connections, understand a lot of what we say and do and they communicate with us in sophisticated ways. Lack of understanding of their “language” does not diminish its value. I get irritated when people choose a very narrow, very human-centered definition of language, such as one that is focused on semantics and grammar and written representation of a language, and then say, ‘see, only humans do this so only humans have language.’

Dogs communicate. They use their whole bodies — ears, tails, hackles, eyes, facial expressions, as well as scent and sound, to communicate. And dogs excel at reading the nonverbal communication of other dogs, humans, and often of other animals like cats. Other non-humans do this as well. Dogs are able to read humans far better than humans can read humans.

And dogs understand a lot of what we say to them. They might be assigning meaning to a combination of words and body language cues to understand our feelings, our desires, our mood rather than attaching the specific meanings that we do to individual objects or concepts. While I don’t expect Cali to speak to me in English or read the newspaper, much of the communication that I have with Cali — and especially what I had with Jana — is clear and meaningful.

Berns’s discussion of language, how he tested dogs’ understanding of words, and his interpretation of those results are very, very human-centric. He talks about the mirror test, which I believe is not a fair test for dogs. His comments on dogs’ lack of a sense of self or others: “My beloved Callie probably didn’t have abstract representations of me or my wife or my children. No, I was just that guy who feeds me hot dogs …” are off-base.

Dogs’ sense of self and others is primarily rooted in scent, not sight or sound. Berns himself showed that dogs recognize the scent of family members and respond differently than to the scent of unfamiliar humans or dogs. So I was mystified and saddened by what felt like a dismissal of the individuality of dogs’ selves and their relationships with key humans (or non-humans).

Despite a few disappointing chapters, I do recommend the book. I the insights into how dogs’ brains work are fascinating, and even where I disagree with Berns’s conclusions, I enjoy learning about his research and his understanding of dogs. Dr. Berns is still my favorite neuroscience researcher, and he’s a great writer. Check out both of his books if you haven’t already!