Monday, June 04, 2007

Maybe my dog really is smarter than your honor student ...

A Washington Post article reports about a Viennese study that indicates dogs use types of reasoning and logic previously thought to be the sole domain of humans: the ability to decide how to imitate a behavior based on the specific circumstances in which the action takes place.

In the study, researchers trained a border collie named Guinness to push a bar with her paw to obtain a treat. Given their druthers, most dogs will choose to perform such a task with their mouths, and in fact when researchers then taught a group of 14 dogs that pushing the bar delivered a treat, 85% used their mouths. The second group of 21 repeatedly watched Guinness push the bar with her paw while holding a ball in her mouth. When they were taught to use the rod, 80% of them chose to perform the task with their mouths. Then a group of 19 dogs watched Guinness perfom the task with nothin g in her mouth, and most of them (83%) chose to use a paw in imitation of the way Guinness performed the task.

The researchers say their studies suggest that when the dogs saw Guinness perform the task with a ball in her mouth, they assumed she was using her paw because her mouth was busy. The dogs who watched her paw the bar with nothing in her mouth, however, may have thought that there was a compelling reason to perform the task in a non-instinctual way.

While some researchers are rather surprised at these results (" ... we thought this sort of imitation was very sophisticated, something seen only in humans," said Brian Hare, who studies dogs at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. "Once again, it ends up dogs are smarter than scientists thought."), it doesn't surprise me that much. I've always known there was more going on in Lucy's head than anyone could prove. Even Mr. Gomez, who prefers a simple life uncluttered by too many pesky thoughts, will occasionally seem brilliant. But some people want proof and I'm really glad to see this kind of research happening.

This reminds me of one of my favorite "Lucy is smart" stories: When she wants to get Mr Gomez out of the room (either because she wants me to play with her without him butting in, or because he's in her favorite spot on the sofa), she will signal that she wants to go outside. When I open the door, however, she steps aside and lets Gomey run out, which he always does, screaming with excitement. It doesn't matter if he's just been outside, he always gets excited about going out again. Then, once he's disposed of, she will either run and get a toy or hop up into the newly vacated prime sofa spot. The fact that Gomey falls for this every time, however, indicates that maybe not all dogs have advanced mental capabilities ...

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