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Behavioral Science Turns to Dogs for Answers

By Julia Koch
For a long time, domesticated dogs were seen as just the slobbering, dumbed-down ancestor of the wild wolf. Dogs, though, have learned a few tricks of their own through the millennia — and can teach us a lot about ourselves.

Guinness the border collie loves the program. Flip on the monitor, and she can sit for hours watching the colorful images flitting across the screen — like a teenager in front of a Playstation. As soon as the images change she presses the touch screen with her nose. If she selects the correct one of two photos, a piece of dry dog food automatically drops down to her feet. If she selects the wrong one, the screen turns red for a moment, and then the exercise continues.

Guinness, though, rarely makes mistakes. She can identify different landscapes, and picking out dog breeds, likewise, doesn’t present much of a challenge. She’s even adept at choosing human faces. “It’s only when she is supposed to recognize the same face in different photos that she makes a lot of mistakes,” explains Friederike Range, a biologist at the University of Vienna.

Guinness isn’t the only dog able to master these image experiments. Since the university’s “Clever Dog Lab” opened its doors in a ground floor apartment in Vienna’s Ninth District in April, the city’s dog owners have inundated the place. “So far only one or two animals have shown no interest in the computer,” says Range. “For most of them it’s a blast.”

What may seem like simple amusement for Guinness and her fellow canines is in fact revolutionizing cognitive research. Range is the first animal researcher to attempt to lure domestic dogs to a touch screen. Scientists in her field have spent decades working with pigeons pecking at pictures, conversing with apes using brightly colored touch symbols, and listening in on the grunting noises made by seals. But the talents of Canis familiaris remained largely unexplored.

Smarter than Apes?

For serious scientists, Lassie and her friends were deemed little more than dumbed-down ancestors of the wolf, degenerated into panting morons by millennia of breeding. But a younger generation of researchers has set out to restore the reputations of our beloved pets. “Dogs can do things that we long believed only humans had mastered,” says Juliane Kaminski of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology in the eastern German city of Leipzig.

It is precisely their proximity to people — which disqualified our four-legged friends as a model for so long — that now makes them interesting to animal researchers. “When it comes to understanding human behavior, no mammal comes even close to the dog,” says Kaminski. Her Leipzig research team has demonstrated that dogs are far better than the supposedly clever apes at interpreting human gestures.

The researchers held two containers, one empty and the other containing food, in front of chimpanzees and dogs. Then they pointed to the correct container. The canines understood the gesture immediately, while the apes, genetically much more closely related to humans, were often perplexed by the pointing finger.

That’s not all. Many dogs were even capable of interpreting the researcher’s gaze. When the scientists looked at a container, the dogs would search inside for food, but when they looked in the direction of the container but focused on a point above it on the wall, the dogs were able to understand that this was not meant as a sign.

Follow the Finger

Dogs are so geared toward communication with people that it seems to run in their genes. For a still-unpublished study, Kaminski and her fellow researchers repeated the pointing experiment with six-week-old puppies. Astonishingly, even the puppies understood immediately that it was worth investigating the area the human finger was pointing to.

“Puppies are still with their mother at six weeks. The phase in which they are most susceptible to human influence only begins after that,” explains Kaminski. Her conclusion is that the animals must already have the innate ability to interpret human gestures.

In a complex experiment, Adám Miklósi, a biologist at the Hungarian Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and one of the pioneers of modern dog research, demonstrated that wolves, on the other hand, lack these communicative abilities, nor are they capable of learning them. He had 13 of his students each raise one wolf puppy. The students fed the wolves with bottles, took them home and onto the subway, and taught them to walk on a leash and respond to basic commands.

After a few months the researchers had the young wolves and a group of young dogs attempt the same task. First both groups were taught to remove a piece of meat from a container. After a while, the investigators closed the containers. While the young wolves kept trying to get to the food, the dogs stopped immediately, sat down in front of their human trainers and stared at them.

“The wolves were only interested in the meat,” says Miklósi, “and, of course, so were the dogs, but apparently they knew that they would reach their goal more quickly by communicating with the people.”

MPI researcher Kaminski believes “that dogs can show us how simple mechanisms can enable highly complex understanding.” Human beings also had to learn highly developed communication over the course of the millennia, which leads the MPI researchers to hope that the dog can in fact teach his owners a great deal about their own history. “If two remotely related species have similar characteristics, they probably developed as a result of comparable evolutionary processes,” says Michael Tomasello, one of Kaminski’s colleagues.

Even more attractive for researchers: dogs are easy to study. “The great advantage of dogs is that we can study them in their natural habitat without any great effort,” explains Adám Miklósi.

How Your Dog and Your Kid Are Similar

Kaminski’s Leipzig team attracted a lot of attention three years ago with their report on Rico, an exceptional border collie who was able to tell more than 200 different toys apart. Even more astonishing was the fact that he learned new concepts using the same principle with which young children learn the meaning of new words. Since then the owners of a number of dogs with similar abilities have contacted the institute in Leipzig. Apparently Rico the memory genius was not an isolated case.

Partly because of such sensational stories, dog research has “literally exploded” in recent years, says Britta Osthaus, a psychologist with the University of Exeter in Great Britain. Osthaus is examining whether dogs have a basic understanding of physical processes and can think logically.

Biologist Range is mainly interested in finding out which learning strategies dogs use. Using a touch screen, she wants to test whether the animals can transfer information from the screen to reality and whether, like people, they learn by a process of elimination. “The dog is just beginning to become a model organism for animal psychology,” says Range, “and there is so much left to study.”

Follow Guinness

Range has already shown that dogs use a learning strategy — selective imitation — that, until recently, was believed to be unique to human children once they turned a year old. She taught her own dog to push a handle to open a food dispenser. Every dog would instinctively use its snout to push on such a device. But Guinness was only rewarded when she used her paw.

Once Guinness had learned the technique, individual dogs were brought in to observe her. If Guinness had a ball in her mouth, so that it was obvious that she could not use her snout, most of the observers pushed on the handle with their snouts. But when they saw Guinness without a ball they usually used their paws. If Guinness chose the more difficult method for no apparent reason, the dogs apparently concluded that there must be some advantage to this behavior.

Young children behave in a similar way. If they observe an adult activating a light switch with his forehead instead of his hands, they only imitate the behavior if the adult’s hands are free. In other words, they are clearly, and deliberately, choosing the eccentric method. But if the adult uses his forehead because he has his hands full, most of the children flick the switch with their hand.

It is no coincidence that the domestic dog’s ascent to stardom in behavioral research coincides with its career as a lifestyle accessory. “In the past, dogs were mainly trained to obey, and many things were simply forbidden,” says Range. “But if a dog only dares to breathe when his owner allows him to, it’s difficult to study his cognitive abilities.”

Border Collies Outclass them All

Nowadays dog owners send their beloved pets to agility training, where they balance on ramps and crawl through tubes. Some dogs attend “dog dancing” sessions, and puppy training has become all the rage. “Dog education has changed,” says Range.

With this change comes clear evidence of cognitive differences. The breeds that were used for hunting or as herding dogs only a few dog generations ago have proven to be especially clever. Border collies like Rico and Guinness would probably be happiest watching over their own herds of sheep. “They simply want to work,” says Range. American dog researcher Stanley Coren is convinced that the border collie is the most intelligent of the roughly 400 breeds of dog.

Judging by the numbers of volunteers who show up at Range’s dog behavior laboratory, many owners are convinced that their dogs are exceptionally gifted. Range gets two to three inquiries a week from dog owners wanting to test their dogs for intelligence. The Leipzig researchers already have about 1,000 potential test dogs in their database.

“There is a village near Exeter where I now know every dog,” says British researcher Osthaus. This is surprising, because her experiments are usually frustrating for dog lovers. “It’s almost embarrassing to me, but with my experiments I tend to run up against the limits of dog intelligence.”

Osthaus recently placed a trellis in her laboratory. The test dog was placed on one side of the trellis and the owner on the other. The animal was able to see its owner through the gaps in the trellis, and an opening was easily visible at one end of the trellis, which was several meters long.

And Cats?

After the dogs had slipped through the opening several times, Osthaus moved the barrier so that the opening was now on the opposite side of the room. “All 20 dogs ran to the wrong side first,” says Osthaus. Apparently habit trumps canine common sense. A Doberman simply sat down where the opening had been, while another dog even tried to run through the trellis.

As clever as dogs are when it comes to all things relating to their masters, they fail miserably when logic comes into play. For example, dogs can pull a string to drag a piece of meat out of a box. But when Osthaus placed two pieces of string in a crisscross pattern, they always pulled on the string that led in a straight line to the meat. “They simply do not understand the connection through the string,” says Osthaus.

Another experiment the Exeter psychologist performed offers some consolation to dog lovers. Osthaus repeated the test with a group of cats, a species that loves playing with strings. The cats, says Osthaus, “did far worse than the dogs.”

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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