The Other Thing
Audie has learned how to match items on command.
The ability to categorize, to sort things out based on the kinds of features they share, is fundamental to perception, learning, and judgment. The ability to sort things into various mental categories allows animals to store perceptual and conceptual information in an efficient and adaptive way. Without the ability to categorize, every object and every event would be perceived as unique and it would be impossible for animals to generalize and learn.
Scientists are also drawn to dogs because of their unique history growing up in the same environment as people, and they hope to learn whether domestication has led to dogs that think and act more like their masters – or whether we just think they have human traits.
“Here’s this species we live with. Everyone has their views about how smart they are. No doubt we are overinterpreting – and in some cases underinterpreting,” said Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor who has long studied cognition in cottontop tamarin monkeys and who heads the new lab. “To what extent is an animal that’s really been bred to be with humans capable of some of the same psychological mechanisms?”
Can dogs understand such abstract concepts as “same,” for example? Or, can dogs be patient? To answer such canine conundrums, Hauser is recruiting both purebreds and mutts and running them through simple tests. In return, they earn tasty treats.
Based on a few decades of experience I’ll vouch for the fact that dogs (like kids) can most certainly learn to be patient. I’m also convinced now that dogs – at least some of them - are capable of understanding the concept of sameness. In fact, for a while now I’ve been working on teaching young Audie to demonstrate that he can do it.
The video below is a brief demonstration of his skills in this area.
*&%$ sound didn’t come though. Oh well.
The only hep I give him is the cue ‘other one’ and praise and petting when he comes back with the correct item. The first item is a roll of purple vetwrap; the second one is a plastic kennel cup; the third is a work glove; the fourth a plastic bottle full of water; and the fifth one – when he starts to get bored and needs a bit of help – is a metal spoon. Bad trainer. I should have used that in the second or third rep because it’s not his favorite thing to pick up. The big correction he gets for making a mistake that last time is me laughing and calling him a goon, then telling him to try again. He gets it right on the second try.
As you can see, Audie is consistently able to correctly identify which item in a small group is the ‘same’ as the one I’m holding.
I couldn’t find detailed information on the studies being done at Harvard but based on the blurb posted at Boston.com it appears that researchers are taking green dogs and testing them to see if they naturally and intuitively grasp the idea of sameness as it applies to how abstract symbols and photos can represent real world objects. If this is really how they’re going about it then I think they need a sharp smack on the bottom with a newspaper.
Given the fact that human beings spend years of time teaching basic concepts like ‘same’ and ‘different’ to our own children, it makes no sense to expect a naïve dog to understand abstract symbolism at the first go.
I used shoes to introduce Audie to the idea of sameness. The OddMan has a thing for shoes. He loves to carry them around the house and has a rather inconvenient habit of leaving them in odd places. Shoes come in pairs so I started by showing him a pair of matching shoes, handing one to him to hold (i.e. fetch), then taking it from him, pointing to the matching shoe and telling him ‘fetch, get the other one’. The main tools I used were a trained retrieve, directional cues and overlaying.
After showing Audie this just a few times he seemed to grasp the idea that when I held up a shoe and said “other one” I wanted him to pick up the matching one and hand it to me.
From there we added distance to the game. Instead of asking him to hand me a shoe right at my feet, I put the matching one a few feet away. Bit by bit I increased distance – then we added difficulty. Starting with them up close, I put two different shoes next to each other and asked him to get ‘the other one.’ I had to coach him a bit at first, but he picked up this idea pretty quickly too. Once he did, we put distance and difficulty together – and I had a dog who would go find me the matching shoe I wanted on command. Gloves and slippers were an easy step from there.
It took a bit longer to teach him that the concept also applied items like tools, water bottles, metal spoons etc., but as you can see in the video, he certainly appears to understand the idea now. Audie still isn’t very good at matching items when he’s distracted, and he seems to get bored with the exercise fairly quickly (typically after 3 to 5 repetitions).
Instead of expecting a young, naïve dog to intuitively grasp the idea of ‘sameness’ I used a step by step process to teach him what it meant. And I think that I got pretty amazing results.