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Tag: skills

Why dogs are smarter than wolves

cartoon

An Oregon State University scientist’s study, published yesterday, is drawing a lot of attention for concluding (as scientific studies often do) the obvious:

The longer dogs live with us, the more dependent they become on us, and, as a result, their problem solving and survival skills aren’t what they were back when they were wolves.

Not to sound stupid, but duh.

This, friends, is evolution. Just as our ancestors could once shred apart a mastodon leg without using an electric carving knife, the ancestors of dogs — i.e. wolves — did, and do, what they have to do to survive.

But to say dogs are “dumbing down” as a result of the cushy life we are affording them, well that’s just a little narrow-minded.

I prefer to think of it as their skills taking a new direction.

Do we say children are becoming more “stupid” because they can’t use a manual typewriter or blacksmith tools?

Of course the scientist and author of this study didn’t use the word “stupid” — only headline writers do that.

More “dim” is how the Smithsonian put it. “Stupid” and “lazy thinkers” is what the Daily Mail called them. “Poor problem solvers” was the phrase of choice for Discover magazine. “Rubbish at solving problems,” reported the International Business Times.

Kinda makes you think the dog world could use a public relations pro at least as adept as the one who garnered the author of this study so much press.

Up to now, canine cognition studies have mostly marveled at how dogs have learned to interact with humans — and cited that as proof of how incredibly smart they are.

This new study, and some earlier ones, however, are portraying how much dogs are relying on humans as an example of how we are “dumbing them down.”

Yes, dogs are growing ever more dependent on humans. Just as humans are growing ever more dependent on computers. Who does that make stupider? Or is “more stupid” the righter way of saying that?

The study at issue is by Monique A.R. Udell, an assistant professor of animal and rangeland sciences at Oregon State University. In it, she compared the problem solving skills of dogs and wolves.

Ten pet dogs and ten wolves were presented with a solvable puzzle. Sausage was placed inside a sealed plastic tub with a hard to open lid. Just one of the dogs was able to open the tub, while eight of the wolves were.

Dogs often gave up more quickly, and turned to their human masters for guidance, often with that cute head tilt they use to manipulate us. (It’s only fair after the thousands of years we’ve been manipulating them, starting with their domestication.)

The wolves, meanwhile, sought out no such help, and spent more time trying to get in the box. It should be noted they also spent more time trying to get into an impossible to open box.

How smart is that?

Udell believes depending on humans for help is not necessarily a cognitive asset. She calls the response a “conditioned inhibition of problem-solving behavior.”

Udell’s findings were published yesterday in the journal Biology Letters.

So, no, I don’t buy that a wolf being able to open a box, or spending more time on the task, is proof they are any smarter. They use their paws and claws and teeth, and perhaps some brute force — but they don’t take a second to consider other alternatives.

Dogs on the other hand, have an entire arsenal — from head tilt to sympathy-invoking whimper, from batting their big eyes at us to licking our hands as if to say, “If you love me, you will help me with this.” To me, that’s proof dogs are smarter.

After all, which is more easy to manipulate, a can of Spam or a human being?

(Cartoon by Charles Barsotti / The New Yorker)

What part of “no” don’t you understand?

You know how frustrated you get when you have to tell your dog something over and over again?

Come here. Come HERE. Listen to me. Get over here right now. Don’t make me say it again. COME HERE!

In this video, the shoe is sort of on the other paw.

John Ventresco, of New Hampshire, is trying to persuade his 11-month-old husky, Blaze, to get into her crate.

Not only does Blaze physically (but peacefully) resist, refusing to budge, but she says what sounds like “no” — 30 times by my count, at least 10 of those quite clearly:

“Noooooo!”

Posted on YouTube just two weeks ago, the video is approaching 5 million views, meaning a lot of people are getting a chuckle, and learning how not to train a dog, and debating whether Ventresco — as gentle and good-humored as his urging is — is going to get bitten one of these days, and, if so, will he have deserved it.

Eventually one of them will have the other properly trained, I’m just not sure if it will be Ventresco or Blaze. Right now, it appears to be a draw.

The bigger question it raises, to me, anyway, is whether the day will come when dogs really do talk. I predict it will — that they will someday talk, on their own, without the aid of implants, headsets, devices that monitor their brain waves and apps that translate what they’re thinking into words.

Several projects are underway that do just that — because we humans want to know what’s going on in their heads, and we want to know now, and somebody somewhere thinks it might make some money.

We’ll take advantage of technology to bring that about and get it on the market as soon as possible, rather than wait a few hundred or thousand more years when, I’d venture, dogs will have evolved to the point that they’re talking on their own anyway.

It’s only natural for that to happen, with them living so closely to us, observing us around the clock,  and watching too much TV. They will continue to pick up our skills — learning to operate a remote control, warming up some chicken nuggets, uttering words, then entire phrases.

Mark my words. By the year 2525 (and that’s just a wild guess), dogs will be saying “yes” and “no,” and more:

Feed me.

I want to go outside for a while.

But wait, there’s more. Details at 11. Ohmigod, they killed Kenny. Live from New York, it’s Saturday night.

Put me in that damn crate again and, I swear,  I’m going to call my attorney.

They may never have as sophisticated a vocabulary as us, may never be as erudite, snotty, self-promoting and adept at making barbed comments as us. But the day will come that they use words.

The question is not whether dogs will someday learn to talk. It’s whether, when they do, we’ll listen.

We already stink at that — in terms of listening to our fellow humans, and in terms of hearing what our dogs are silently saying. We’re so dependent on words we don’t hone our wordless communication skills, even though that mode is often more honest and meaningful.

My fear is that, through continued domicile-sharing with humans, dogs are going to learn to talk, but also — like Blaze, like Ventresco — not to listen.

It all brings to mind some lyrics from a song that has nothing to do with dogs — Don McLean’s “Vincent.” When you think about it, the misunderstood artist and modern day dog have much in common. We wonder what they’re trying to say, fail to see their brilliance, and don’t appreciate them fully until they’re gone.

Instead, often, we taunt, ridicule and shame them.

How much shorter might Van Gogh’s career have been, how many appendages might he have lopped off,  were he around in the Internet age, reading nasty comments from people about his paintings?

How much quicker might the civil rights movement have progressed if people had shut up and listened to Martin Luther King, Jr., the first time?

Are we getting any better at listening, or quicker to turn a deaf ear?

As the song “Vincent” says:

They would not listen, they’re not listening still.
Perhaps they never will…

Let’s give it a listen.

Who let the dog out? It was the cat



Time.com
says this video shows some interspecies teamwork.

I’m not seeing it.

I’m seeing a dog (Gizmo) waiting patiently for a cat (Dexter) to open the kitchen door.

If that’s teamwork, then I, from the comfort of my couch, am a professional football player. (I’ll take my salary now please.) Then again, I guess spectators do their part, simply by spectating.

This video was the result of a camera set up by a couple trying to figure out how their pets were escaping from the kitchen.

Turned out the cat was both the apparent mastermind and the door-opener, which is no big surprise given Dexter, being a cat, is more conniving than Gizmo — not too mention far more dexterous.

Does that mean Dexter is smarter than Gizmo?

Not necessarily. We think Gizmo is the wiser one, taking an approach that says, “You take the risks, you make the play; I’ll sit back and watch. If you’re successful, I’ll say say ‘yay!’ and reap whatever bounties lay beyond the kitchen door.”

What do marijuana-sniffing dogs and newspaper reporters have in common?

phelan

What’s a working dog to do? You learn your trade, hone your skills, toil away, only to find out that the world around you has evolved to a point where those skills are no longer much appreciated.

It’s why you can’t find a blacksmith too easily nowadays. It’s what happened to the elevator operator, the milkman, and, at least from my biased and disgruntled point of view, the newspaper reporter.

Such too was the case with Phelan, a marijuana-detecting Labrador retriever in the employ of the police department in Lakewood, Colorado.

With the passage by Colorado voters of Initiative 502 — legalizing the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana — the skill Phelan was best known for is no longer much in demand there.

In fact, his  biggest asset has become a liability, the News Tribune reports.

Phelan was handed his pink slip this week and sold to the state Department of Corrections, where, in his new job, his inability to distinguish between marijuana and other drugs won’t be a problem — all drugs being illegal behind bars.

The same story is playing out in Washington state,  where voters also legalized marijuana use, and where police departments are figuring out whether to cease training new dogs in marijuana detection, put their existing dogs through “pot desensitization” training or just retire them and send them out to pasture, according to the Associated Press.

Take it from me, pasture sucks. Dogs and people, I think, prefer having a mission.

But Phelan’s mission, at least in the two states where moderate amounts of marijuana are now permitted, no longer much needs to be accomplished. Worse yet, alerting to small amounts of marijuana could mess up prosecutions in cases involving other, still illegal, drugs.

Say Phelan alerted to drugs in the trunk of a car. Phelan’s inability to distinguish between heroin and marijuana — or at least specify to his handler to which he is alerting — means any subsequent search by officers could have been based on Phelan detecting an entirely legal drug, in an entirely legal amount.

That means the “probable cause” the search was based on might not have really existed, and that means any evidence of illegal drugs subsequently found in the search would likely be tossed out.

Thus Phelan, unless he were to be retrained to drop marijuana-detecting from his repertoire — not easily accomplished — has ended up going from cutting edge law enforcement tool to an old school has been.

Drug detecting dogs — traditionally trained to alert to the smell of marijuana, heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamine and cocaine —  can’t specify what they’re smelling, much less the quantity it might be in.

In Washington, the new law decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of the drug for individuals over 21, and barred the growth and distribution of marijuana outside the state-approved system.

Dog trainer Fred Helfers, of the Pacific Northwest Detection Dog Association, said abandoning pot training is a “knee-jerk” reaction: “What about trafficking? What about people who have more than an ounce?” Still, he’s helping departments who want to put their dogs through “extinction training” to change what substances dogs alert to. That takes about 30 days, followed by a prolonged period of reinforcement.

The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission removed detecting marijuana from its canine team certification standards this year, and no longer requires dogs be trained to detect it, but some others say, given large amounts of pot are still illegal, it can still be a useful skill for a dog to have.

In Pierce County, prosecutor Mark Lindquist believes new dogs are the answer — dogs trained in sniffing out the other drugs, but not marijuana. He’s not convinced dogs can be re-trained. “We’ll need new dogs to alert on substances that are illegal,” he told the Associated Press.

Other police departments, like Tacoma’s, aren’t making any changes.

“The dog doesn’t make the arrest, the officer does,” said spokesperson Loretta Cool. “A canine alert is just one piece of evidence an officer considers when determining whether a crime has been committed.”

Phelan was one of two drug-sniffing dogs on the police force in Lakewood, Colorado. He’ll be replaced by Kira, a Belgian Malinois  who was trained not to alert when she smells marijuana. Duke, a Labrador retriever mix with the old-school training, will remain on the force for now.

Phelan, though, will be moving on, and I sympathize with the crime-fighting Lab.

His new gig in the slammer is clearly a step down the career ladder — not unlike going from being a newspaper reporter detecting corruption and injustice to an unpaid blogger who mostly (but not entirely) regurgitates material already written.

And, for Phelan, there’s the added insult of being sold for the lowly sum of one dollar.

Surely — old school as his talents may be — he was worth more than that.

Smarty pants … and drools … and sheds

DSC05410

 
It’s official: We humans, according to the New York Times, have underestimated the intelligence of dogs (which, of course, was exactly their plan.)

“…(O)ver the last several years a growing body of evidence, culled from small scientific studies of dogs’ abilities to do things like detect cancer or seizures, solve complex problems … and learn language suggests that they may know more than we thought they did,” the article in Sunday’s “Week in Review” section noted. 

“Their apparent ability to tune in to the needs of psychiatric patients, turning on lights for trauma victims afraid of the dark, reminding their owners to take medication and interrupting behaviors like suicide attempts and self-mutilation, for example, has lately attracted the attention of researchers.”

While we humans still don’t understand exactly how they do it, dogs have proven they can detect not just our behavioral changes, not just pending seizures and diabetic attacks, but several types of cancer. (We, on the other hand, must rely on expensive doctors, intrusive tests and tight-fisted insurance companies to get our diseases diagnosed.)

In 2004, German researchers reported that a border collie named Rico could recognize  200 objects by name and remembered them all a month later. (I’m guessing that Rico’s vocabulary list was kept on one of those thingamajigs that have a clip to hold the papers in place.)

Dogs, with their incredible sensory powers, can recognize things in the distance. (We rely on the New York Times, sometimes mistakenly, to tell us what’s staring us in the face.) Dogs pretty much have us humans  pegged. (Most of us don’t begin to understand them.) At least now though, we’re trying a little harder.

“I believe that so much research has come out lately suggesting that we may have underestimated certain aspects of the mental ability of dogs that even the most hardened cynic has to think twice before rejecting the possibilities,” said Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and an author of several dog books.

Dr. Coren’s work on intelligence, along with other research suggesting that the canine brain processes information something like the way people do, has drawn criticism from those arguing that dogs are merely mimicking, or manipulating people into believing that they in fact grasped human concepts.

Clive D. L. Wynne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida who specializes in canine cognition, argues that it is dogs’ deep sensitivity to the humans around them, their obedience under rigorous training, and their desire to please that can explain most of these capabilities, the Times article notes.

“I take the view that dogs have their own unique way of thinking,” Dr. Wynne said. “…We shouldn’t kid ourselves that dogs are viewing the world the way we do.”

Thank God, and dog, for that.

A dog that can read? You be the judge

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

Willow’s owner claims her dog can read — only three phrases, but still.

What do you think? Is the dog actually reading the words? Or is something else at play?

Study looks at health benefits of dog walking

dogwalk1

 
I’m not going to make fun of this study. I’m not going to make fun of this study. I’m not going to make fun of this …

Ah, I can’t resist.

A study at Cornell University is trying to determine whether walking the dog helps owners shed and keep off unwanted pounds, according to USA Today’s Paw Print Post.

If that sounds like a no-brainer — one of those things that perhaps man could figure out without an expensive study —  consider this: “An early look at the data shows that the dogs who walk the most steps have a better body condition score.”

In all fairness, there’s more to the study than determining whether exercise is good for us and our dogs; and dog walking habits could, if properly approached, make for some pretty interesting reading.

Basically, I see three types of dogwalkers: Those who jog with their dogs, clearly getting exercise; those who hike or walk laps with their dogs, also getting exercise; and those who take their dogs to the park and let the dogs get all the exercise while they sit on the bench, yap with fellow dog walkers, smoke, or talk on cell phones.

In defense of the latter group, it should be pointed out that we they, are still getting exercise by virtue of walking to the park, and that, rather than being total slouches, they may prefer to let their dogs playfully romp and socialize off leash with other dogs — thereby getting even more exercise (the dogs, anyway) than they would by being walked in boring circles on a rope.

It should also be pointed out that members of the more sedentary latter group — while violating leash laws — are also allowing their dogs to gain social skills, and, perhaps, honing their own in the process.

But back to the study. Cornell researcher Barbour Warren says they are analyzing everything from how much dogs and humans actually walk together to human attitudes, and the decisions to walk the dog or not walk the dog.

“We’re trying to get people to make small changes in the amount of food they take and the amount of physical activity they take,” says Warren, “and finding out how dog walking might be involved and how typical veterinary practices might be involved in helping more.”

Warren says the study stems from the rise of obesity in the USA and obesity-related illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and arthritis. More than two-thirds of the people across the nation are overweight and one third are considered obese. Dogs are increasingly falling into those categories as well.

“We became interested in trying to prevent weight gain,” he says. “Dog walking offers two of the key elements for regular physical activity, purpose and companionship. Dogs can provide both of these in spades.”

The goal of the study is to develop the necessary data and tools to build a program to combat obesity by increasing dog walking as a form of family exercise.