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Head and shoulders for dogs: a new study shows that they are just as smart as people, too.
I don’t want to know the details of the study, just that it’s a pretty big deal that dogs understand and respond to language. The study that was published in the journal Science has to do with the ability of a dog to “speak” an almost wordless language: the language of human body movements and expressions.
A dog’s owner or guardian makes a gesture with his/her hand, fingers, elbow, or shoulder and a dog’s brain responds with a complex repertoire of behaviors. These are known as “pantomimes.” For example, lifting the arm to point at the sky is called “up,” while an extended arm is called “down.” A dog can figure out what “up” or “down” is supposed to mean, and will respond with those behaviors. If “up” means “come,” the dog will head in that direction. If “up” means “stay,” the dog will stop in his/her tracks. The study examined whether dogs could pick up on such body movements. They found that dogs would “talk back” to pantomiming dogs and the responses were much like human pantomiming.
Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, an author on the study, explained that she was particularly interested in seeing how dogs who had been bred to have a variety of temperaments — including those bred from the same litter — behaved around a pantomime from different owners. “If we want to understand the nature of human cognition,” she said, “we have to understand dogs’ behavior. They do things we never would.”
But this is a story about my dog, Buster. Although he understands about a third of what people are saying, he understands the whole idea behind pantomime. He has figured out that being the recipient of a pretend gesture means a treat is about to be given, and Buster makes it happen. But he understands how to work with the pantomime, too. For instance, he will raise his head and look to the sky if he sees that a finger is pointing in his direction. But he will keep looking if the hand is not moving. But if the pantomime indicates that a treat is coming, he just looks up and is done with it.
He has also figured out how to work with the other kind of pantomime: the one where the pantomime is a gesture to express an emotion. He watches me to see if I am angry or sad. If I make a motion with a hand, he will head for that direction. He watches for how long I continue the gesture, too. If I’m holding out a hand for a treat, he’ll just stare into my eyes for a second or two. But if I don’t, he’ll just slowly walk away. And if I’m just looking up into the sky like he’s seen me do a thousand times before, he will not respond. He may get excited or distracted when a treat is actually dropped, but he does not interpret my emotional expression as a signal to be excited.
When I ask him to do a task, it is usually the action he needs to be doing that he doesn’t know how to do. When I ask him to sit and watch TV, he knows how to sit. He doesn’t think he needs to sit because I asked him to sit, he figures he’ll sit until I’m ready to do the task. If I ask him to get down or move, he knows he should move. But he doesn’t figure that he should get down if I ask him to. So I have to physically direct him. I usually have to put a hand down and say, “Down, get down.” Or I have to say, “Come,” and then, “That’s it, now turn and walk away.” Or I have to pick him up, and say, “Walk,” or “Go.”
Of course, the problem is that when I give my child a signal, I’m putting my hand in the middle of the process. I don’t want him to “think” that I’m putting my hand down to give him a treat. I don’t want him to think that my hand in the middle of the task is the best way to get him to complete it. He’s not stupid, he knows that it is probably harder for him to be successful with the entire task if I interrupt him mid-task. He also knows that I’m going to have to remind him to complete the task when he sits in the middle of it.
The best thing that I’ve learned from this problem is to do what I should do from the beginning: I need to tell him what I need him to do, even if I’m putting my hand down and then moving it. I tell him, “Down,” and then, “Down.” “Come,” and then, “That’s it, now turn and walk.” And when he sits, I immediately tell him what I need from him. And that helps him. It doesn’t take me half the time to tell him what I need from him, but it does take a lot less time. And that’s what we need in the first place.
Sometimes, I have to remind myself of this, as well. Sometimes, I forget to tell him what I need from him, and the result is a longer, more complicated task. He may be more likely to interrupt me during those times than if I had told him the beginning. We have a “one” and a “one-and-a-half” in the house. When the second one sits down, I tell him, “Down.” “Up,” and then, “That’s it, turn and walk.” Sometimes, he gets up and sometimes he sits, which means I have to repeat the same instructions, and that will take longer, and there’s a lot more likely to be an interruption during that time.
It also takes a bit longer for the second one to understand that I was trying to get him to sit. It takes a bit longer for him to listen to me when I explain that he’s supposed to take turns with the other one. It can take a bit longer to train a second child to be polite, to sit, and to listen.
There’s always a bit more of a gap between the “one” and the “one-and-a-half,” which usually results in a few extra words. I find that the first time I’m running through a routine with a second, I use a lot more words to tell him what I need from him and how to be polite, just to be sure he gets it. I find that the first thing I can remember when he’s sitting is to say, “You’re going to be sitting for the rest of the night.” Then, “You’re going to be getting up in fifteen minutes.” But then, if he hears a “sit,” he’ll sit without even