Archive for April 27, 2009

Clever Maggie

I came across an interesting clip on YouTube today featuring a very clever little dog called Maggie.

A bit of googling turned up an article in the Mountain Xpress News that tells us Maggie’s story:

When Jesse and Arthur Treff got Maggie, a Jack Russell terrier as a puppy, “she was a challenge,” explains Jesse. “Between chewing and just everything a puppy can do, magnify that by 10 — that’s what a Jack Russell puppy does.”

In an attempt to curb Maggie’s misbehavior, the Treffs thought they’d try redirecting her energy into learning tricks. It was immediately apparent that she was a natural. “She was picking up new things every three or four minutes,” says Jesse. “She’d get it. I’d come back and she’d still have it. It just accelerated from there.”


When Maggie was about 6 months old, a friend of Jesse’s said to her jokingly, “I bet she can even count.”

Not really expecting anything, Jesse held up four of her fingers for Maggie — who proceeded to tap her right front paw on the ground four times. Over the next couple of weeks, Jesse continued showing Maggie varying numbers of her fingers. “She was getting it right about 80 percent of the time,” says Jesse.


Initially, Maggie would respond only to Jesse, but eventually she began to answer mathematical equations from strangers as well. Sometimes, Jesse says, she still can’t quite believe that Maggie is able to do what she does. “I think she’s not going to be able to do it one day — it’ll go away. Someone will ask her something and she’ll just stand there.”

This summer, WLOS-TV did a short segment about Maggie’s ability to count and the piece was picked up by other stations nationwide. Since then, says Jesse, “I can’t go down the sidewalk in Asheville without someone saying, ‘My friend doesn’t believe your dog can count — can you show him?”


When asked about those skeptics who believe Maggie’s counting is some kind of hoax, Jesse says: “In Asheville, there are very few people who don’t believe Maggie can count. The few people who don’t believe it … I use to work hard at trying to change their minds. Now I feel like, ‘That’s fine. I couldn’t care less.’  And I really understand: You have to see it to believe it.”

Ah…  but seeing isn’t necessarily the same as believing – or more importantly, the same as knowing

Should we believe reports that dogs can do mathematical calculations?  Is Maggie’s owner telling us the truth?

Well… in science, as in all things, there’s a big difference between honesty and reliability. An honest observer can be unreliable and a reliable observer can be dishonest. Honest observers can make mistakes by focusing on the wrong aspects of an experiment or they can be fooled by their pre-conceived notions.  Either way, their mistakes can be gosh-darned hard to ferret out. 

Human beings have an odd tendency to be most impressed by animals when they seem to be able to mimic human activities like doing math or using language.  We are generally much less impressed when they excel at tasks that are beyond our abilities.  Obsessed with our own big brains, we also have a hard time accepting the idea that we aren’t always in conscious control of our actions.  Because of this we sometimes prefer to “dishonestly” believe that behaviors that occur outside our conscious control are governed by supernatural forces like mind reading or telepathy.

A classic example of this phenomenon is illustrated by the story of another clever animal – Clever Hans.  Hans was a horse who learned to cleverly and correctly respond to a range of questions involving mathematical calculations and other advanced cognitive tasks by tapping his hoof.  Hans was a sensation.  People flocked to see the horse that could think like a man.

Or could he?  In 1904 Oskar Pfungst discovered that Hans wasn’t spelling, doing mathematical calculations or telling time; he was responding to incredibly subtle physical cues he picked up from his owner, Wilhelm von Osten.  How did Pfungst solve the riddle that so many others had missed?  Well… everyone other than Pfungst who watched and studied Hans focused on the horse’s performance.  Pfungst was the only one who asked von Osten how he had taught Hans to tap. He was also the first investigator who didn’t automatically assume that the key issue in understanding the phenomenon was how Hans learned the answers to the questions. Because he thought outside the box, Pfungst was able to demonstrate that Hans was only able to perform well when certain people were present.

Robert Yerkes later noted another important issue with regard to reports of clever animals:  The fact that they regularly responded correctly to questions about things they had absolutely no previous knowledge of.  Clever Hans would spell out a word that included letters he hadn’t been taught to tap out.  A clever dog called Roger appeared to spontaneously learn to do complex tasks like multiplication.  These animals seemed to acquire advanced skills by osmosis.

The skills of clever animals like Hans, Roger and Maggie are astonishing.  They’re just not amazing in quite the way most people assume they are.  Clever animals don’t understand spelling or  mathematics – they’re geniuses at observing and responding to human behavior.

How do they do it?

Mirror neurons may be the key.

Horses and dogs are social species. Being able to understand the intentions of others is a fundamental part of social behavior. While the neural and functional mechanisms behind social intentionality are still not well understood, a recent article by Iacoboni, Molnar-Szakacs, Gallese, Buccino, Mazziotta, and Rizzolatti  in PLoS Biology holds some tantalizing clues.

Recently, the discovery of a special class of neurons in the primate premotor cortex has provided some clues with respect to such mechanisms. Mirror neurons are premotor neurons that fire when the monkey performs object-directed actions such as grasping, tearing, manipulating, holding, but also when the animal observes somebody else, either a conspecific or a human experimenter, performing the same class of actions. In fact, even the sound of an action in the dark activates these neurons.

Researchers have believed for some time that mirror neurons might be the neural mechanism that allows us to understand the intentions of other people. The basis of this idea arises from the fact that mirror neurons focus on actions.  An action includes both an actor and a goal.  The idea of a goal implies intention.  This action – goal – intention chain may form the basis of the process in which mirror neurons allow us to create internal representations other’s mental states in our own minds.

Context appears to play an important part in the action – goal – intention chain, and it may be the missing link that explains how clever animals are able to discern and correctly interpret astonishingly subtle cues about the intentions of the people they spend their lives with.  Iacoboni et al. propose that context provides vital cues that help us clarify intentions. They state that, “The same action done in two different contexts acquires different meanings and may reflect two different intentions.”  

Context provides the vital contrast that allows an animal to differentiate one subtle action from another.  If I call my dog’s name while I bend every so slightly and smile he is able to tell that my intention is entirely different than it is when I call him from a somewhat more formal posture.  And he doesn’t need to be able to read or do math to figure it out.

And – context is important in our discussion here.  Unlike humans, dogs and horses aren’t distracted from subtle changes in context in their sensory world by a continuous internal narrative. Free from that endless stream of white noise, they exist in a world that’s far richer in sensory input than ours. This explains why they’re often startled or distracted by sights, sounds and smells that we can’t even detect.

Given their much greater sensitivity to context and sensory information – it doesn’t require a great leap to imagine that clever dogs and horses can learn to detect and respond to incredibly subtle – and even unintentional – physiological cues emitted by human beings.

Why is this important to pet owners?  The important issue here is that of our common, human failures of expectation. We take a naïve, inexperienced animal and put it into a situation where we expect it to perform advanced tasks like an experienced, trained  human would.  If the animal fails our expectations and doesn’t respond “correctly” we assume that it’s stupid.  If it meets our expectations by responding correctly we assume that it has suddenly – and without prior training – successfully made the mental leap to being capable of advanced human skills.  And in both cases – we are the ones displaying a sobering lack of cleverness.

I run into errors of expectation nearly every day in my work as a dog trainer.  A busy family gets a new dog and they expect it to learn the rules of the household by osmosis.  When the dog, understandably, fails to respond in a properly “clever” way, they assume that he’s stupid and give up any hope of  training him.  Worse yet, if the dog initially manages to parse out a reasonably acceptable version of the rules on his own, he’s likely never to be given the training and attention his – obviously bright – mind craves because, of course “he doesn’t need it”.

We can learn far more about the mental abilities of animals when we learn to see them they way they are instead of the way we’d like them to be.  Your dog shouldn’t need to learn to read or do math to impress you. Once you learn to recognize them, I’m sure you’ll find that your dog’s got plenty of astonishing skills – and he’d love to share them with you.

So show me who’s a clever girl.  Spend a few years teaching your dog to understand the alphabet, spelling and phonics –  and I’ll be thrilled to celebrate your success.  Spend a few weeks or months teaching your dog to read subtle physiological cues in a way that makes it look like she can read – and I’ll be more than happy to celebrate her success.

April 27, 2009 at 12:17 am 1 comment

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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April 2009