The Other Thing

March 30, 2010 at 5:37 pm 27 comments

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. reports on research being done at Harvard on canine cognition:

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 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.


Entry filed under: amazing, dogs. Tags: , .

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27 Comments Add your own

  • 1. H. Houlahan  |  March 30, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Video will not play at all! Bwaaa!

    “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong …”

    (Or New Age revised version, “One of these things is doing it’s own thing …”)

    So the next concept is just that — pick out the one item of a group that is different from the others.

  • 2. Rob McMillin  |  March 30, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Pretty cool, Janeen!

  • 3. Vivian  |  March 30, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    I used Firefox and it opened and played fine, but no sound.
    Interesting idea —- but after all, he’s a Border Collile.
    What did you expect????

  • 4. M Woods  |  March 30, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Video fine, but for the lack of sound. I would have loved to hear what you were saying.

    As for the training, you are teaching it exactly the way I have taught it for years. I’ll be a good girl this time and refrain from saying what I think about those who live in a lab and have no real contact with the everyday world of the living.

    For the life of me, I don’t understand just how some people think a dog learns if they were to lack the ability to compare and contrast. Then again, in the rush to complete the dumbing down of America the owning and training of a thoughtful dog must be a truly frightening thought.

    Good job to both you and Audie.

  • 5. Eleanor  |  March 30, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    Video’s fine on my IE, I have no idea which version. You know how computer impaired I am.

    Good work! Based on the book Alex and Me, I’ve been pretty sure I should be able to teach my Golden colors and shapes. I think red, square is within her capabilities. Only now, of course, I have to actually get off my butt and do the work!

    BTW, Viv… That ain’t no Border collie 🙂

  • 6. SmartDogs  |  March 30, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    Thanks and glad you agree. The line of logic I needed to follow seemed obvious to me – and feel free to say any crappy thing you want about those who only study dogs in labs here. You’re in good company.

    Oh – and all I said was ‘other thing’ and ‘good boy’. This is why I *need* to post it with audio – so you can tell I’m not coaching him.

  • 7. SmartDogs  |  March 30, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Border Collie? He’s an English Shepherd. Though IMO there isn’t a huge difference between the two.

  • 8. Eleanor  |  March 30, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Just giving you grief, Vivian. If I didn’t know who the breeder was, I wouldn’t know he’s not a Border collie either.

  • 9. SmartDogs  |  March 30, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Except that he’s sable.

  • 10. Chas Clifton  |  March 30, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Interesting video. Impressive dog.

  • 11. Faye  |  March 30, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Oh yeah? Well, I got the cute one!!!

  • 12. Cindy  |  March 30, 2010 at 8:56 pm


  • 13. MizShepherdist  |  March 30, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    That’s pretty darned cool. I’m going to share this with the gang in our rescue group — never know when one of them will become inspired to take up training!

    El, I’ll just bet your Golden would have no problem learning shapes and shades, if not colors!

  • 14. Donald McCaig  |  March 31, 2010 at 4:32 am

    Video worked on Safari. Donald

  • 15. Eleanor  |  March 31, 2010 at 6:28 am

    “Except that he’s sable.”

    DUH! Every once in a while someome hits me with a fact that is like a little light bulb going on. Some time back, I did look at BC coloring, trying to figure out what color my foster dog was.

    I never picked up on the simple fact that they aren’t sable. Gotta admit, I’ve never seen a sable one, now that I think about it.

    OK, so now I’ve got this lilttle piece of knowledge going for me. LOL

    Thanks 🙂

  • 16. EmilyS  |  March 31, 2010 at 9:21 am

    so very cool! But.. are you absolutely sure you’re not giving him some inadvertent clue and getting a “Clever Hans” effect?

    I’d love to see you design a version of this that would eliminate the possibility… put the objects in a different room and send him?

    Some dogs clearly can distinguish objects by their unique names (“get your Kong”); how fine is their ability to discriminate?

  • 17. SmartDogs  |  March 31, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Thanks. Once my new video editing software arrives and gets installed I’ll update this clip to include sound.

    I’ll also add another clip where he retrieves an item in a different room out of sight. He already knows how to do that. And – I don’t use a specific name for each item. I just show him one thing and then tell him to find “the other one”.

    I don’t find it terribly surprising that Audie can do this. His mother is an operational SAR dog – she does the same thing, but with people. And over a much larger search area.

  • 18. Rob McMillin  |  March 31, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    So, Audie is a Pipover?

  • 19. SmartDogs  |  March 31, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    No, he’s a Piston (like Faye’s cuter dog, Cap 😉

  • 20. H. Houlahan  |  March 31, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Border collies do, rarely, come in sable. I think more common in the UK than here.

    But Audie ain’t it.

    Sable — shaded sable like Audie, saddle-sable (like a black & tan GSD ), and “clear sable” — genetically yellow — are common ES colors, usually, though not always, with white Irish markings.

    BTW, the video is now working. But I really would like it with the sound, when you get a chance.

    Dammit, he’s got that same stilted straight rear that his sister has.

    My mother once had a little mop-dog that would raid her Imelda-level shoe collection and make piles of them in the living room. He always took just one of each pair. Did not chew them up, was fussy about his piles, and never, ever took both shoes of a pair for the living room art installation.

    I bet he either would have learned this concept toot sweet or been completely unwilling (not unable) to do so.

  • 21. H. Houlahan  |  March 31, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Okay, the reference to SAR brings up some interesting fun facts about search dogs.

    Trailing dogs (well-trained ones) can distinguish the individual scent trails of identical twins, and correctly follow the desired twin when the other has also left a trail.

    But the same dogs, presented with a scent article from one twin and several possible trails, including that of the other twin but not the one whose scent is on the article, will select the other twin’s trail.

    (I do not know whether these dogs had been properly taught a negative signal, which could influence the second result.)

    When a scent article for a missing person has been contaminated by being handled by other people, a dog who has been trained to do so can be scented off the article, presented with all the people who contaminated it so that he knows “not these,” and can then select and follow the missing person’s trail, even though the other people have also walked through the area, usually more recently than the missing one (because they were looking for him, natch).

    This all seems like similar cognitive work to what Audie is doing.

  • 22. Rob McMillin  |  March 31, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Interesting. I though “Pipover” referred to any of Pip’s children, not just a specific litter.

  • 23. H. Houlahan  |  March 31, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    The Pipovers were the first litter of ten, named in utero because she didn’t have a bun in the oven, but a whole tray of muffins, later corrected to the Pipovers.

    The Pistons’ (eight of them) parents were Pip and Boston.

    Here’s the old man:

    No, that photo has not been shopped.

  • 24. Ed  |  April 3, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Interesting facts about search dogs. (Although I’m now curious about how often an identical twin goes missing.)

    This “find the other one” is something I”ll have to try. My girl is good at finding or picking objects – except on the days when she’s not into it. She knows the difference between the TV remote and the cable remote, for instance.

    Or course, she’s already got a shoe problem so we’ll need some other like things to start with. Maybe wooden spoons and Boodas…

  • 25. H. Houlahan  |  April 5, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Funny thing, we did have a search for a boy once where his identical twin was right there.

    He’d run away and hopped a freight, not wandered off “sleepwalking” as his missionary parents insisted.

    In this case, getting a good interview with the boy’s brother, without his parents standing over his shoulder, would have been the fastest path to figure out what happened.

    None of the trailing dogs that were available to us that day were in the category of competence that would have been needed to replicate those experimental results.

  • 26. Amy Dorsch  |  April 8, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    Found the video after talking to you. How cooll! I agree that It take human children time and much repetition to learn the concept of same/different. So it’s pretty neat that Audie gets the concept.

  • 27. Tracey Chandler  |  May 9, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    Ok. Quick question….. how long does it actually take to train your dog to accept these kinds of rules and these ways of life. After all, they are animals and do have animal instincts. I only ask, because I cannot get my dog to do anything! ANYTHING! that I want him to do, let alone get him to do cool tricks like you show here on your video….. help!

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