Saturday, October 15, 2016

Smart Dogs

My dog Bear is a relatively smart dog.

This is, unfortunately, making his life more complicated.

The best example of this, that I can think of, is that he has discovered a very frustrating and annoying triangle of danger and doom in my living room.

Now, to many people this will sound like proof of my dog's stupidity.  The problem is that they'd be judging based upon human standards.  And my human standards, my dog's perception and reasoning is deeply flawed.  But I's argue that his behavior is showing some very intelligent strategies for defining problems, and trying to work out solutions for them.  For a dog.

You can judge an animal's intelligence against two general standards.  The first standard is going to be the human scale of sentience and problem-solving that we use to justify our mastery of the animal kingdom.  The second scale is the scale of relative intelligence within a species - that is, how an individual animal reacts or 'thinks' compared to others of its species (or family, or even genera, if they're closely related). This comparative scale is also sometimes used to prove that, say, crows are smarter than mice, or other such wide comparisons - but I find those to be inherently dissatisfying, and of questionable validity.

Bear has identified a problem when we're playing with his toys in the house.  If I throw them from the couch to the other side of the house, he'll often stumble when he's running back to the couch and jumping back up on for the next round of the game.  Bear has correctly noticed that this only seems to happen in a single general area of the floor - it's what I've laughingly called The Family Room Triangle - a triangle bounded by the two ends of the archway between the dining room and the family room, and the front of the couch.  When he's running through that area he stumbles far, far more often than anywhere else in the house - especially if he's carrying a toy in his mouth.

So, to avoid this hazard he will, when coming back with his toy, skirt around the edges of this triangle, cautiously, and carefully stepping until he's close enough to the couch to leap up onto it.  This has significantly improved his rate of successfully reaching the couch without stumbling, but it's not perfect.   So he's recently added a new curlicue:  he's going first into his crate, then coming out to the couch.  So far this new strategy for dealing with the perfidity of The Family Room Triangle has been successful.

So Bear's identified a hazard:  The Family Room Triangle; he's clearly worked out a theoretical framework for how the hazard works:  There's just something in that particular area that likes to trip him!  And now he's taken actions to minimize his exposure to the risks inherent within The Family Room Triangle.  And, as I said, those actions do work within the framework of what he's considered.

All in all, a very intelligent response from a dog.  But it's still a dog's solution, based on several flawed understandings of the issues involved.

There are two factors that have escaped Bear's consideration when facing the problem of the evil force that's tripping him when he plays with me on the couch:  friction and transient obstacles.

Friction comes into play because I have laminate flooring on the first floor in my house.  Dogs and laminate flooring do not always get along.   He'll skid on it, especially when chasing balls outbound from the couch, and can adjust for that, because the skidding happens every time he reaches sufficient speed.  It's not a variable hazard, and so the rules for dealing with it are pretty easy.  Coming back from retrieving his toy, however, he's moving at a slower pace and only really risks overcoming the coefficient of friction between his foot pads and the floor, i.e. slipping, when he's making the last leap up onto the couch and using more force than he does while trotting back with his toy.  That's one major cause for his slips.

The other cause is, well, Bear's a dog.  And spoiled.  He's got several toys, and since they're all large and relatively easy to spot, I don't insist that they get put away regularly.  Bear has a distinct tendency to leave his toys where they lie when he decides that play time is over.  Because of the simple frequency of traffic through The Family Room Triangle, many of his toys come to rest in that area.  And Bear has a dog's rather sanguine attitude towards blunt hazards, particularly familiar blunt hazards:  I'll just walk through them because even if I bump against them, they're not going to poke out an eye.  But that ignores that when his feet land, or more properly attempt to land, on his toys, they do not give purchase for his feet, and he often stumbles.  i.e.  the transient hazards trip him up.

But he doesn't recognize them as part of the problem for The Family Room Triangle - even when none of his toys are lying within that area he's still playing it safe by skirting the edge.  And so, with the best of intentions, and with the most determined reasoning available to him, my dog is making himself look pretty ridiculous - because he's a smart dog.  (And before people try telling me that he's not so smart, ask yourselves how many children you may know who would find Bear's treatment of the challenge before him to be a perfectly appropriate model for them to follow, rather than worrying about cleaning up their own play space?)

YouTube video demonstrating some of this behavior.