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Teacher’s Pet: Boning up at Ivy League

As scientific experiments go, there’s a lot out of Hauser’s control. For one, the dogs hail from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are trained, as Penny Jane, whom I taught to open cereal boxes (this has come back to haunt me). Others are hardly trained at all. The pups range widely in breeds, sizes and ages. The owners are also a big variable. Some might overly prompt their dog or grow frustrated. “Some think they should be more involved and won’t listen to us,” Hauser said. “One owner felt compelled to say we are doing it all wrong.” I didn’t do that, but I did repeatedly drop Penny Jane’s leash at the wrong time.

In the early months of the study, Hauser and his lab assistants worked out the trial’s kinks. They found that some dogs were distracted by the window, others liked to stare at themselves in the mirror and some wanted to play with the experimenter. They tweaked the trials to keep the dogs’ attention as best they could, though some would still lie down and fall asleep, as Hauser’s own Newfie did.

There was no way Penny Jane was going to nap. She stepped gingerly into the experiment room with her whitetipped, curled-in-a-letter-C tail tucked between her legs even though the research assistant proffered treat after treat. To find out what Penny Jane was thinking, the long-limbed, lean young woman directed us to a far corner of the room, where there was a chair and a square outlined in black tape on the floor. I took a seat, as did Penny Jane, but not in the marked box, so I had to push her like a lump of clay into the square, then scoot her around again to face the assistant. She looked at me over her shoulder with wide brown eyes that begged, “What are you thinking?”

The assistant tried to warm up Penny Jane by dropping treats in a bucket with a flap and setting it on the floor for her to investigate. But once seated in the square, Penny Jane was glued to it. The dog who once excavated an entire beach to unearth a single Cheeto now remained frozen, no matter how we egged her on in our chirpy voices. I didn’t need a scientific study to tell me what she was thinking, which was, “You two humans are freaking me out.” I was thinking, “What will I tell my friends if Penny Jane gets kicked out of Harvard?”

Finally, I gave her a familiar cue. “Find it,” I said, and my girl ever so carefully approached the bucket. Then she caught the whiff of a treat, curled a paw around the flap to lift it, and dug her nose deep into the bucket and grunted happily. She trotted back to the black square chewing, her tail at full curlicue.

With Penny Jane now a willing subject, the official trial began. Over the next 20 minutes, she sat in the black square and repeatedly pondered which bucket to approach. A few times the lab assistant pointed to the bucket with the treat, and Penny Jane gave her the equivalent of a canine “duh” and followed her index finger to the correct one. When the lab assistant pointed to one bucket with her foot, Penny Jane paused and then walked to the other one, the empty one. But when the lab assistant hoisted a small television in both arms and then pointed to a bucket with her foot, Penny Jane readily went to the correct one. The lab assistant explained that this showed that Penny Jane understood contextual signals, meaning she saw the lab assistant’s hands were occupied so that she had to use a foot.

I began to swell with pride, though I fought it by repeating “bad girl, bad girl” in my head. My Penny Jane, the unsocialized pup who was described to me as the “scaredest” dog in the shelter, was turning in a solid B performance, and at Harvard University, no less. Then, in a section designed to test dogs’ sensitivity to human emotions, the lab assistant picked up a bucket in her hands and scolded it: “No, no, no.” As I feared, Penny Jane essentially put her pencil down. She stood up, walked to my side, lay down and looked out the window. The dog who’d never been corrected, never been spoken to sternly, wasn’t going anywhere near the now scary lab assistant or buckets, not even if filet mignon were stashed inside. We were going to be one of those test results.

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