Dog News

You’ll Go Far, My Pet

by Melanie

Life With Dogs is reader-supported. We may earn a small commission through products purchased using links on this page.

4.14.14 - Smart Dogs1

By David Hochman / New York Times

Not to brag, but we may have a little genius on our hands. Our six-month-old is up before dawn playing brain games. She knows her way around an iPad and practically devours puzzles, and I’m teaching her to read. Just recently, she mastered an advanced chess toy.

I am talking, of course, about our dog.

Let me rewind a moment. The last time I had a puppy, I was nine years old. This might as well have been in the Mesozoic era, since life with a dog was so primitive then. If Buck was good, he got Gaines-Burgers and maybe a Milk-Bone. Bad, we’d deliver stern admonitions over the half-eaten sneaker. But within hours of adopting our fuzzy, adorable Pi, I sensed that being a pet parent today — nobody uses the word “owner” anymore, apparently — means cultivating intelligence, manners and communication skills the way the parent of, say, a small human might.

4.14.14 - Smart Dogs2
Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

Our canine compadres no longer eat from mere bowls. Now there are interactive feeding products like Dog Twister (imported from Sweden, no less, for around $50), with rotating hidden compartments that make dogs reason their way to kibble. Another, called Slo-Bowl, pays homage to the artisanal food movement, with “nature-inspired” rubber curves and ridges that keep dogs “foraging for every bite,” the company’s website says ($20). A doggy tick-tack-toe puzzle from Petco encourages “problem solving” and increases “eye-paw-mouth coordination,” for $17. Smartphone apps like App for Dog, iSqueek and Answers: YesNo let puppies doodle, nuzzle virtual chewies and even recognize a few simple words. Others help them take selfies. Then there is the spreading quantified dog movement: A San Francisco company called Whistle Labs makes a wearable activity monitor — a Fido Fitbit, basically, for $129 — that tracks a dog’s every sit, stay and roll over.

Needless to say, I bought it all. My wife and I were already micromanaging our son’s schoolwork, food intake, extracurricular activities and playdates; why not helicopter Pi to the far limits of her breed? Which, come to think of it, meant figuring out what breed she was in the first place: Mutt doesn’t quite cut it these days. For $70, the scientists behind Wisdom Panel 2.0 will “uncover DNA-based insights that may help you understand your dog’s unique appearance, behaviors and wellness needs,” according to the package. Two awkward cheek swabs later (“I’ll hold her head, you twirl the Q-tip thingee,” my wife said), we were a lab test away from knowing Pi’s pedigree down to eight great-grandparents.

4.14.14 - Smart Dogs3
Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

A new dog is nothing if not a mystery shrouded in fur. What exactly was lurking behind Pi’s smoky eyes? Would she be a charmer, a rocket scientist or a bumbling, tail-chasing dolt? For answers, I turned to Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist who studies behavior at the Canine Cognition Center at Duke. Last year, he started Dognition, a web-based testing service that charges $29 and up for a series of rigorous at-home video experiments to evaluate your dog’s cognitive skills. The results are fed into a database with tens of thousands of dogs to determine one of nine personality types: “socialite,” “maverick,” “renaissance dog” and so on.

“People want to get inside the heads of their dogs, and after 40,000 years living alongside them, science is finally helping us do it,” Mr. Hare said over the phone. He was on his way to Congo to do fieldwork with Bonobo monkeys, his other species of focus.

In the last decade, Mr. Hare informed me, we have learned more about how dogs think than in the last century. As he explained, his own research shows that dogs read our gestures, like pointing, more flexibly than any other animal. Other investigators from Hungary, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, recently announced that the canine brain is sensitive to cues of emotion in human voices. When you pet a dog, another study concluded, both human and canine oxytocin levels increase.

4.14.14 - Smart Dogs4
Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

Other findings are hairier. A research article in Frontiers in Zoology last December asserted that dogs align their bodies along a magnetic north-south axis when urinating or defecating, though nobody knows why. My favorite was the classic study conducted in France on why a stranger’s crotch is more interesting to a dog than its master’s.

More curious still was the crowd-funded effort this past winter by a group of Scandinavian designers and “optimistic dreamers” calling themselves the Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery. The team claims to be developing a small gadget called No More Woof, a prototype that uses “the latest technology in microcomputing and EEG to analyze animal thought patterns and spell them out in human language using a loudspeaker.” A dog barks, and the electronic translator will say things like, “Em, why are you guys leaving?” The initial unit will be pretty basic, but then so was the first computer, they say. It all reads like an Onion parody, but the project raised over $22,000.

Julie Hecht finds her bliss in canine urine. She is a researcher with the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College (Yale just opened a dog research center, too) and writes the amusing Dog Spies blog on Scientific American’s website. Ms. Hecht did her graduate work on the “guilty look” dogs display after redecorating the living room with toilet paper. (It turns out they make the same face when someone else strews garbage on the floor.)

4.14.14 - Smart Dogs5
Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

When I revealed my inclination to dote on Pi to the point of overparenting, Ms. Hecht said the impulse made sense. A decade of influential research conducted in conjunction with the Family Dog Project at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, where Ms. Hecht put together her master’s thesis, suggests that “dogs show very similar responses to what you see with infants up until toddlers around the age of 2,” she said. As Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and the author of “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain,” wrote in a much-emailed Op-Ed in The New York Times last October, “Dogs are people, too.”

We spent weeks looking for such evidence in Pi. Night after night, my 10-year-old son, Sebastian, and I turned our living room into a makeshift doggy science lab as we took Pi through dozens of assessment drills on Dognition’s website that measured empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reason. I would cue up the video instructions as Sebastian readied the treats. The yawn game gauged whether a human yawn elicits one from the dog, a sign of interspecies empathy only certain canines are known to display. Pi wasn’t among them. She just tried to eat the sticky note that was her placekeeper. She fared better at the memory game that asked her to find a treat hidden under a cup after a minute looking away. But then she wouldn’t stop gnawing on the cup. Her Mensa move came in a physical reasoning game in which she inferred time and again that a piece of paper on an angle meant a treat was hidden behind it. Pi grabbed the square of organic white Cheddar and left the paper.

From there it was on to tests of endurance and dexterity. Zoom Room is a national franchise where “urban dogs” run obstacle courses, practice indoor herding and attain Canine Good Citizen status — an actual thing — from the American Kennel Club. We signed up Pi for Agility Training 1, which had her hopping over hurdles, zipping through canvas tunnels and barking her head off at her classmates.

4.14.14 - Smart Dogs6
Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

Feeling she might do even better with one-on-one attention, I consulted with Anna Jane Grossman, who runs School for the Dogs in Manhattan. Ms. Grossman believes traditional dog training is a chore. “I’m a big fan of drinking wine while training,” she told me. Among other techniques, she employs something called a flirt pole, instructs dogs to put away their own toys and, lately, teaches them to use iPads. You read that correctly.

At a demonstration for high school students at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn in January, Ms. Grossman’s Yorkiepoo, Amos, nosed away on Doodle Draw, answered questions using the YesNo app and took a few (terrible) selfies with an app called Big Camera Button. Amos was obviously in it for the treats Ms. Grossman was dispensing like rounds of munitions, but the dog’s feats drew cheers and “awwws” from the crowd. The point is simply to keep puppy stimulated. “Active dogs are much less likely to eat the couch and pee on the coffee table,” Ms. Grossman said. I couldn’t get home fast enough to try the iPad tricks with Pi. A dab or two of peanut butter on the screen is all it took to get her sketching digital pictures and licking with abandon at Flappy Bird. The real showstopper was teaching her to recognize “sit,” “down” and other commands using an app called Big Words. I’d show Pi the word while saying it aloud. If she sat when prompted I’d bombard her with freeze-dried liver nibs. After a while, she’d sit without me even speaking the word. Let me say there are few parlor tricks more stunning to friends than the sight of one’s dog extending her paw at the sight of the words “fist bump.”

But then I heard about Chaser, a 9-year-old Border collie in South Carolina who supposedly knows 1,022 words. With Chaser, it’s not just “fetch.” It’s “fetch the tangerine orangutan” — and she gets it.

4.14.14 - Smart Dogs7
Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

Honestly, I hated this dog until I called John Pilley, the soft-spoken retired psychology professor at Wofford College who spent five hours a day over three years raising Puppy Einstein. Chaser learned her vocabulary not through treats or corrections but rather because Mr. Pilley, 85, made each word an object fun for the dog to discover. To teach Chaser to find a new Miss Piggy toy, for instance, Mr. Pilley would show it to her and say “Miss Piggy” dozens of times. Then he would hide it and ask her to find it, rewarding her with “Good girl!” Chaser played her way to brilliance. Mr. Pilley told me, “The big lesson is to recognize that dogs are smarter than we think, and given time, patience and enough enjoyable reinforcement, we can teach them just about anything.”

It’s true that dogs everywhere are doing things that would have been unimaginable in the Alpo era. Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center trained a team of shepherds and retrievers to sniff out lab samples containing ovarian cancer. Scent hounds are also being used to forecast epileptic seizures and potentially life-threatening infections. A black Labrador from the St. Sugar Cancer-Sniffing Dog Training Center in Chiba, Japan, was accurate 98 percent of the time in picking up early-stage signs of colon cancer. As Mr. Hare, from Duke, said, “I will take a dog smelling my breath over a colonoscopy any day of the week, even if it’s just an experiment.”

As for our own puppy experiment, results were adding up. The DNA test reported that Pi is a Great Pyrenees-Border collie mix, which means her forebears may have mingled with French aristocracy, and, yes, there may be some Chaser in her, too. Dognition, meanwhile, classified her as a “protodog,” reminiscent of the communicative, connected wolves that first broke from the pack to bond with early humankind. That felt like a stretch, but Pi’s mottled gray fur and talent for counter-surfing for salami certainly had a wolfy quality to it. I continued serving her meals in Swedish puzzles, drilling her on the iPad and digitally quantifying her shaggy moves. But just to be safe, we shipped her off to obedience school.