Posts filed under ‘amazing’

Happy Solstice!

December 21, 2012 at 1:04 am Leave a comment

Best. Gundog Retrieve. Ever.

Today, in celebration of the opening day of the Minnesota gun deer hunting season we bring you this gem via Outdoor Life:

Displaying the kind of obsessive focus and drive that can turn this popular breed into the Pet From Hell – a labrador retriever named Ramsay successfully retrieved his 14-year old owner’s first antlered deer. Across a lake. In January. Read the whole thing here.

Unfortunately it’s illegal to use a dog to track deer (even injured deer) in Minnesota. Dog owners can be fined up to $500 if their dog kills an animal – and a dog can be shot by police or conservation officers if it is caught chasing deer.

November 6, 2010 at 7:15 am 4 comments

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.

Boston.com 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 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.

March 30, 2010 at 5:37 pm 27 comments

Canine Calculus

Stories of “clever” animals that can spell, write and do math have amazed and delighted us for more than a century. These stories capture our attention because we have an odd tendency to be most impressed by animals when they seem to be able to mimic human activities.

A classic example of this phenomenon is Clever Hans, a horse who appeared to be able respond correctly to 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.

Of course now we know that Hans wasn’t spelling, doing mathematical calculations or telling time — he was responding to incredibly subtle physical cues picked up from his handler. And while some may be disappointed by this I think that the skills of clever animals like Hans are truly astonishing.  They’re just not astonishing in the way many of us hoped they would be.

The riddle of Clever Hans was solved by Oskar Pfungst who, unlike everyone else who studied the horse, focused on the handler instead of the horse. Pfungst didn’t assume that the key to the phenomenon was how Hans learned the answers to the questions – he wanted to know how the horse was able to give the right answers.

As Oskar Pfungst demonstrates, we learn a lot more about what goes on inside the minds of animals when we focus on seeing them as they are instead of imagining them as we’d like them to be.

And while stories of ‘clever’ animals still make the news, real insights on animal cognition are being discovered by mathematicians following in the footsteps of Oskar Pfungst.

Case in point: Dr.Timothy Pennings and his Corgie mix Elvis. Pennings noticed that when they played fetch together at the beach Elvis consistently chose a very efficient path to retrieve the ball. Pennings’ curiosity was piqued so he and his students developed an experiment to test whether Elvis was choosing an optimal path. Mathematically speaking, the optimal path is the route that allows Elvis to minimize his travel time through various media that affect his speed in different ways.

Following this work, Pennings published the article “Do Dogs Know Calculus“. In the article he discussed Elvis’ intuitive ability to solve a classic optimization problemwithout doing calculus. The world of mathematics is apparently almost as competitive as the world of dogs, and Penning’s article was soon rebutted by Peruchet and Gallego’s 2006 article “Do Dogs Know Related Rates Rather Than Optimization“. in which they demonstrated that a female Labrador named Salsa also seemed to choose an optimal path when retrieving in water.

Peruchet and Gallego postulated that instead of intuitively choosing an optimal path, Salsas’ performance was based on her ability to detect transient changes in the distance to an object (in this case, the ball) combined with an awareness of the relative speeds of running and swimming.

In 2007 Pennings and co-author Roland Minton responded in “Do Dogs Know Bifurcations?” Bifurcation theory is the mathematical study of how systems change as some parameter of the system is changed. It is typically applied to dynamical systems. A bifurcation happens when a small, incremental change made to the system causes a sudden change in its behavior. In biology it is used to study things like population dynamics and predator-prey relations.

According to the Roanoke College news page:

The experiment so interested Minton that he used it as a problem for his calculus textbook and soon e-mailed Dr. Tim Pennings, quickly forming a unique friendship sown entirely through electronic communication. Minton says they were “having a lot of fun topping each other” with various calculus equations that revolved around Elvis’ innate bifurcation point. Minton and Pennings became so enthralled with the subject that Dr. Pennings suggested Minton write his own article about their findings. Minton, however, felt that it wouldn’t have been right to take the credit, so they collaborated on the article, “Do Dogs Know Bifurcations?” instead, combining Minton’s ideas with Pennings’ and Elvis’ findings.

[…] Pennings’ findings show that when he mathematically calculated the optimal path of Elvis’ route, he arrived at an estimation that was very close to Elvis’ own bifurcation point. This indicates that Elvis may in fact have the ability to problem solve.

Minton says the experiment and the application of Elvis’ actions to calculus provide an excellent visualization for the teaching of calculus and is also an entry into finding out how dogs (and possibly humans) problem solve. Pennings continued the experiment, and instead of standing on the shore, he and Elvis began in the water, and he found once again that Elvis innately found the most efficient path to the stick. This experiment cemented his belief that Elvis has the ability to think ahead when solving a problem.

Pennings and Minton reported that Elvis had repudiated Peruchet and Gallego by introducing bifurcation into his strategy. They proposed that Elvis uses a small set of rules to find an optimal path to a ball thrown into the lake. If the ball is close, he just swims straight to it. If the ball is farther away then he gets out of the water and solves the shore to ball problem. Since this set of rules described Elvis’ behavior accurately, the remaining question was whether he knew how to bifurcate at the optimal point.

They returned to the lake to collect more data and discovered that Elvis’s bifurcation distance was consistently somewhat farther down the beach than the optimum point. From this they concluded that “Elvis knows bifurcations qualitatively, but not quantitatively” (a result that may be comforting to many frustrated calculus students).

Pennings, Minton, Peruchet and Gallego studied something dogs do well.They used a tongue-in-cheek approach (dogs do calculus!) to poke fun at each other and get attention for their work – but they also made of a point of stating that these clever dogs functioned as inspiration for the human mathematicians who did the real calculating.

In focusing on something dogs do well (choose an optimal path) instead of how they might mimic our behavior (doing calculus), these mathematicians were able to provide evidence that dogs use executive functions to solve complex problems much as we do. In a related bit of mathematical grooviness, they also discovered a nifty pictorial proof for the relationship between the geometric and arithmetic means of two numbers

Hope College has awarded Elvis an honorary degree. He is not, however, allowed to teach classes.

March 22, 2010 at 10:08 am 2 comments

Charlie’s Angels

Charlie and I took a field trip last week.  We went to see a veterinarian whose specialty is orthopedic surgery.

Charlie has had a noticeable limp since he arrived here.  He avoids putting weight on his right leg, his knees turn out in an odd way, and he can only get up on the furniture if we help him.  I waited to take him in to get it looked at for a couple of reasons.  First, he was a snarky, stressed-out little snot and I wanted to wait until he’d progressed to a point where the visit would be only moderately stressful for him and the vet; and second because I had a nagging suspicion that the help Charlie needed would be more than either NESR or I could afford right now.

Last week I knew we were both ready to make the trip — and now I have good news, bad news and more good news to report.

Good news:  Charlie stayed remarkably calm for more than an hour while he was in a strange place surrounded by strange people who did strange things to him.  It was a bit of a hike to the clinic — the kind of drive that would have provoked a frantic, scrabbling, whining, puking reaction in him a couple of months ago — but today Charlie and Audie rode together without incident.  The clinic staff didn’t coo or gush over Charlie (he hates that), and he and I both appreciated the professional, matter-of-fact way this clinic operated.   I stayed with Charlie and held him during the exam.  While I’m sure it was painful, he took it like a trooper and we didn’t need to muzzle him.

Bad news:  Charlie has a grade four luxating patella on the right and a grade two on the left.   The right knee isn’t just painful, if it isn’t repaired soon the misalignment will damage his knee and hip.  The left knee, while not as severely affected as the right, also needs to be repaired.  Net cost – about $3,500.

Good news:  Not only has the surgeon offered to give us a discount — but in a stroke of wild, wonderful, good fortune — an anonymous benefactor (or benefactors) has volunteered to pay for Charlie’s surgery.

This wonderful, beautiful, unselfish, anonymous gift was given in the true spirit of Christmas.  And we will always be grateful.

I’ll call to schedule surgery on Charlie’s right knee this week.  The goal is to stagger his surgery and mine by a couple of weeks to reduce the level of inconvenience involved.   One armed handler and three-legged dog, Charlie and I will rest, heal and work on physical therapy together this winter.   Audie will go back to being my service dog, and Zip will sulk because we’re not focusing on her needs (throw!)

By summer both of Charlie’s knees should be healed.  According to the orthopedic vet, when both of a dog’s knees are damaged as badly as Charlie’s are, repairing them has an almost immediate positive effect on behavior problems like shyness, reactivity and aggression.  So this surgery should help heal his soul along with his body.

Thanks to Charlie’s Angels a truly wonderful little dog who was once tossed out like a piece of trash gets a chance to move on to the kind of life and home he deserves.

Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts —

Next winter Charlie will be leaping through the snow - at his forever home

December 21, 2009 at 9:20 pm 19 comments

Amazing Agility Horse

In previous posts we’ve shown you agility mice and agility goldfish – today we’ve got amazing video of another animal enjoying traditional dog agility exercises.

And you thought keeping up with a dog was difficult!

I loved the prance and kick after the tunnel.  They’re obviously having a great time.

Hat tip to Maryna for forwarding the link.

December 4, 2009 at 3:11 am 1 comment

Vague Scientist

“Ever tried to impress your friends with half remembered science stuff you’ve read in the newspaper? In Vague Scientist you’ll all the latest developments handily explained in the confused, conversational way in which you’ll inevitably end up regurgitating them down the pub.”

VagueScientist

Now we know where main stream media hacks get their science fix!

From Coelacanth Diaires – click for big.  Be sure to click the link and scroll down – there’s some great stuff there.

July 16, 2009 at 1:24 am 2 comments

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