Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Good Dog, Smart Dog

I love it when science explains things that I notice all the time. A few years ago, I actually read something that explained why the shower curtain tends to balloon in towards you after you first turn on the shower spray. (A phenomenon that occurs far more often in the freezing northeast than here in balmy Texas. Living in Worcester, MA, I had to learn to turn the shower tap before I climbed into the claw-footed tub with the wrap-around shower curtain; otherwise, a cold, clammy shower curtain would creep in at me from all sides like Norman Bates and cause me to shriek. It's science! Who knew?) So imagine my lack of surprise when I read in the New York Times last week that dogs are actually pretty smart. All together now: "Well, duh." 

The article by Sarah Kershaw talks about how medical alert dogs are able to draw on their intelligence as well as their superior senses  to help their companions before seizures or panic attacks or diabetic comas strike. Apparently, until recently, most researchers and trainers assumed that the dogs who served as medical alert animals were good at their jobs precisely because they were good dogs. The thinking was that the dogs just wanted to please. Now researchers believe the dogs complete their tasks properly because they are smart. (Duh, again!) 

Kershaw cites a couple of research cases in which dogs learned enormous vocabularies (up to 250 words—more than your average 2-year-old human— and, may I add, better behaved) as well as abstract concepts, such as color and shape. One dog—a Border Collie, of course—learned 1,500 words. (That's better than many of my tutorees!) Another, a Shepherd, learned to recognize images of dogs so that he could distinguish between photographs that featured dogs from those that did not. These dogs' accomplishments are pretty amazing. 

Of course, researchers still suggest that desire to please is still a great factor in training. Dogs are opportunists. They do whatever it takes to get the treat or the pats or the boo-boo voice from their trainers and owners. If you ask me, there's nothing wrong with that. Dogs that are really smart learn how to manipulate their owners while making them feel loved. In my experience, not many humans can do that.  As one psychology professor—the one who met the BC with the brilliant vocabulary—points out, dogs are intelligent, but their brains work differently than human brains do. 
“I take the view that dogs have their own unique way of thinking. It’s a happy accident that doggie thinking and human thinking overlap enough that we can have these relationships with dogs, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that dogs are viewing the world the way we do.”
Of course! The last thing we need are animals that think like humans! Still, it is nice to see that doggie intelligence is getting its due. Break out the flash cards! 

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