My suspicions were confirmed on December 26, 2002, while at the Metreon Theater in San Francisco. As the youngest in the family, my job was to wait in line for tickets, and, knowing this, I went prepared with a scientific article titled, “Do dogs respond to play signals given by humans?” The research, lead by Nicola Rooney at the Anthrozoology Institute in Southampton, UK, featured 21 dog/owner pairs playing—or at least, attempting to play. In what could surely have been billed as a comedy, owners patted the floor, barked, bowed, shuffled their feet, slapped their thighs, crawled on all fours—anything to get their dogs to romp with them.
The researchers videotaped the sessions and meticulously catalogued, recorded and identified common actions used by owners to solicit play. They then tested to see which signals actually worked. As expected, bowing in a human version of a dog play-bow, as well as lunging while verbally encouraging the dog, usually elicited play. Other gestures, such as tickling the dog as though she were a human infant, or stamping one’s feet as though dislodging last week’s dried mud from hiking boots, just earned blank looks. And surprisingly, patting the floor and clapping were less than 50 percent successful. What’s more, while barking at, kissing or picking up the little pooches probably brought on laughs from the researchers, most dogs failed to find these actions amusing.
As interesting as these findings were, the real message—one that stayed with me—was what came next. Upon analyzing the data, the researchers found that although some actions tended to instigate play while others resulted in silent stares, the frequency with which the owners used the signals was unrelated to their success. In other words, owners tended to use unsuccessful gestures even after they were demonstrated not to work. And there I had it, scientific proof: Dogs are smarter than humans. Well, at least in some ways. You see, dogs are champions at trial-and-error learning. They have all day to try things out and see what works.
For instance, want to play fetch when your people aren’t interested? Grab a tennis ball and drop it at your human’s feet, and then bark until he finally picks it up and tosses it. Getting the silent treatment? Bark longer and louder—you’ll eventually get a response. Or, choose the right time, like when your human’s on the phone; that’s when they’ll do anything to get you to shut up.
While dogs are masters of this style of learning, we humans are hindered by our much-vaunted cognitive abilities. Armed with the wonderful capacity to observe and imitate, we copy the behaviors we see, whether they work or not. Clouded by our preconceptions of the techniques we’re supposed to use, we forget to stop and evaluate whether our actions or methods actually work.
This might seem like fun and games when it’s just us dancing around trying to get our dogs to play. At worst, when our pooch refuses to romp, we attribute it to her not being in the mood. But when it comes to something more important, like coming when called or sitting on command, a dog’s failure to perform can result in her being labeled “stubborn” or “stupid.” Because what else could it be?
Well, according to a series of research studies by Daniel Mills (veterinarian and researcher in Behavioural Studies and Animal Welfare at the UK’s University of Lincoln), as with play signals, much poor performance could be attributed to dogs’ inability to decipher our signals. It turns out that even if our dog responds to our commands some of the time, she may not know what they mean as well as we think she does.
According to Mills, a number of factors determine how well our dogs perceive the message we intend to give. One is whether the signal is verbal or visual. While we humans are used to communicating by talking, Mills’ research indicates that this may not be the best mode of communication with dogs. In an experiment to test which signal type takes precedence, Mills and his colleagues trained dogs to respond to a verbal right and left cue as well as a visual pointing cue for the same behaviors. To guard against bias that could be created by the order of teaching, half of the dogs were initially trained using verbal cues and the other half, using visual cues