Saturday, June 20, 2009

Animal Intelligence

There are researchers working on what animals know, how intelligent they are, and other such questions that are hard to measure in a laboratory. Some wonderful work has been done on primates. A few gray parrots have proven that linguistic abilities aren't the exclusive property of humans, and that they aren't just "parroting." Dogs -- well, we seem to feel as though we know them well enough. Some of them have bigger comprehended vocabularies than others, but there's remarkably little formal research done on the animal that lies on our feet while we type the reports.

Those of us with dogs, though, all collect our little anecdotes. One of the researches on primates is the ability to use symbols to indicate "same" and "different." I never thought to try to teach my dogs symbols in the sense of something they could use to communicate with me, but "same" and "different" is the basis of all scent work. Sunny and I started with "Find another one." For tracking, that meant finding each article, regardless of material, that smelled like the tracklayer. She was willing to extrapolate, however, and could do "Find another one" to mean a set of cadaver samples, shreds of a dollar bill hit by a lawnmower, and other things, ignoring my scent if it happened to be on the object. Technically, this meant she was willing to work in different conceptual categories: match the human scent or match the object's core scent. This turned out to give us trouble on the utility-dog exercise of retrieving the most recently handled scent article; she wanted to show me all the things that matched instead of bringing back the one that didn't -- the only one of the set I'd handled -- even though she was happy enough to fetch "My stick" in the yard.

I'm still experimenting on my dogs to see just what concepts underlie some of the things they consider perfectly ordinary behavior. Doing scent work with them helps; it means I have a better idea how they see the world, which helps me understand how they make decisions. Knowing roughly how little color vision they have helps too. They're not being foolish when they can't find a red toy in green grass from the windward side. They honestly can't see it. When they waltz off after the invisible, they're probably after something perfectly obvious to them, and they're usually nice enough to keep their thoughts to themselves when we don't realize what that obvious thing is. After watching a puppy trailing a single ant across concrete for several minutes, I've learned how amazing their perceptions and dedications can be if I don't rush to conclude, "Stupid puppy." The same puppy is now working up the food chain to cats and rabbits, though never for very far.

Another way to look at intelligence, of course, is to look at persistance. My husband's childhood dog watched the family opening doors and tried to work the knob himself. His paws and the knob weren't compatible, so he stopped trying. Likewise, Sunny once tried to steal my soda as we picnicked on the tailgate of my car. She'd already had some of my burger, freely given, and a few fries; she had her own cup of water, but the coke smelled more interesting. I looked over and she had her mouth on my straw. Since dogs cannot suck things up straws, of course, she didn't get any, and (sadly, since I didn't have a camera handy at that moment) she never bothered to try again. Things that did work, of course, she was happy to repeat.

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