As always, we must start at the beginning. Can dogs think? For those of us who live with them, the question seems silly. Of course they can. But science requires that we prove our assertions. So what is “thinking”? Patricia shared that the scientific community generally defines it as: the ability to formulate an abstract mental representation of an event or object external to the self and the ability to manipulate that representation to solve a problem.
That's a pretty big definition, so let's break it down. First: can dogs understand abstract concepts? It seems that they can. Ken Ramirez has done quite a bit of what he calls “concept training”- teaching dogs (and other animals) things like left vs. right, high vs. low, and big vs. small. He's even taught them how to copy the actions of other animals!
Imitation is actually a pretty complex cognitive process. In order to perform a novel behavior after observing someone else do it, the observer needs to have self-awareness, some measure of empathy (as in, his left front leg is like my left frong leg), and an ability to translate seeing into doing. Ramirez isn't the only person to have taught mimicry- Adam Miklosi from the Family Dog Project in Budapest has done it, too.
No discussion of smart dogs would be complete without talking about Rico the border collie who has demonstrated the ability to “fast map.” This is a mental process in which children (and apparently Rico) learn the meaning of a new word after hearing it only once. Rico learned the names of over 200 different objects, and could retrieve them for a different room when requested. That's pretty impressive on its own, but when Rico was told to find the name of something new, something he'd never heard of before, he could correctly choose the novel object through the process of elimination.
In a similar vein, European researchers have taught dogs the concept of “match to sample.” Using touch screens, they have the dog match two identical images. Dogs are quite adept at this, and so researchers began assigning “value” to the images. Some images resulted in treats, and some didn't. Dogs learned to choose the “positive” images and avoid the “negative” ones. When two images were placed next to each other, the dogs would not only choose the positive ones, but would also infer that the other image- even if they'd never seen it before- must be negative. After that, they would avoid the negative item, even when it was paired with another novel image. Pretty neat.
These are pretty complicated ideas, so I'm really glad that somone uploaded this video demonstrating them:
So, it seems pretty clear that dogs can think abstractly. But can they solve problems? Again, we dog people would agree this is a no brainer. Thankfully, science supports us: dogs can solve problems. What's interesting, though, is the way they do it.
Dogs, dingoes, and wolves have all been tested on what's called the “detour test.” The subject is on one side of a see-through fence, and there's food on the other. The task is to go around the ends of the fence in order to get to the food. It sounds simple, and the dingoes would agree: 100% of them could complete this task within 60 seconds. Dogs, though? Depending on the study, only 60-80% could do it.
Why is this? Well, scientists have found that wild canids seem to be more adept at solving non-social problems than dogs. Man's best friend truly believes in his role, and is more likely to look to his owner than to try to solve the problem himself. Which, let's be fair, is a way of the solving the problem. After all, why not get the being with opposable thumbs to do the hard work?
Another study set out to see if dogs could recognize if their owners needed help and alert a nearby person. They set up two situations, in which the owners either fell to the ground, faking a heart attack, or where the dog entered the room to find their owner trapped under a bookcase. Lassie they were not: not a single dog sought help from a bystander. The authors concluded that the dogs could not recognize an emergency, but Patrica criticized this, sharing that she thought it possible that the dogs knew their humans weren't actually in danger. I tend to agree with her- after all, dogs have an excellent sense of smell, and their people probably didn't have any of the chemical indicators of distress. Add to that all of the hundreds of anecdotal stories of dogs saving their owner's lives... well, I think further research is needed.
The good news is that there will be further research. Canine cognition labs have sprung up all over the world, and there is a lot of really interesting stuff being studied. Check out the links below not only for references to the specific studies Patricia discussed, but also to the labs' sites in general- there is tons to explore there, and the science geeks out there will be in heaven. (There are also some links to non-canine animal cognition studies that Patricia shared with us, but that just don't fit in with this post.)
In the meantime, I'd love to hear stories about your dog's ability to think. Has he ever copied you or another dog's actions? Does he have a unique method of solving a problem? What amazing feats has he accomplished? Tell us! Anecdotes may not be science, but they sure are interesting... and maybe someone will read your story and decide to study it.
If You Want to Know More:
- Responses to quantity: perceptual versus cognitive mechanisms in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), by Boysen and Berntson
- Alex the Parrot, and Dr. Irene Pepperberg
- Life of Birds: Crows in Japan
- A video of the smart crows
- Temporally structured replay of awake hippocampal ensemble activity during rapid eye movement sleep, by Louie and Wilson
- Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence for "Fast Mapping" by Kaminski et al
- Can a Dog Learn a Word, by Paul Bloom (more on Rico)
- Inferential reasoning by exclusion in pigeons, dogs, and humans by Aust, Range, Streuer, and Huber
- How well do dingoes, canis dingo, perform on the detour task? By Smith and Litchfield
- Social learning in dogs: the effect of a human demonstrator on the performance of dogs in a detour task, by Pongracz et al
- Social Learning in Dogs, links to studies from the Family Dog Project (Pongracz, Miklosi, Topal, et al)
- Adam Miklosi video on imitation
- The ethological analysis of imitation by Miklosi
- Do dogs (canis familiaris) seek help in an emergency? By Macpherson and Roberts
Canine Cognition Labs: