Over the weekends of August 21 and 22; and August 28 and 29, canine volunteers and their humans came to visit When Hounds Fly after classes ended to participate in the first set of canine cognition research experiments, conducted by Krista Macpherson from the University of Western Ontario.
It’ll probably take quite a while before any sort of paper or findings are produced, so here’s my lay-person’s attempt at describing what went on, and what I anecdotally observed. (Krista will have to analyze hours and hours of video footage to actually see if anything meaningful happened)
Krista was interested in determining whether or not dogs understand the concept of timing – so this is the experiment she designed:
Two Manners Minder remote training devices were setup to dispense food on different intervals – one was set to dispense every 15 seconds, and the other was set to dispense every 60 seconds. After multiple repetitions, were dogs able to figure out how frequently each one paid off, and proactively move towards the machine that was ready to pay off next?
At first, the dogs were introduced to the Manners Minder machines. The machines are set to produce an audible tone prior to dispensing (the tone is normally used as an event marker, i.e. clicker, for training). Relatively quickly, each dog learned that the tone meant that the machine was going to pay.
Next, the machines were moved over and placed on mats created by taping different colored bristol boards together. The bristol boards serve as a visual indicator for analyzing the position of the dog relative to either Manners Minder during the task.
The owner and the dog start at a chair placed in between the two machines. The owner is wearing sunglasses, as dogs often can pick up on where humans are looking at for cues and information (i.e. the owner might start staring at the next machine to pay, and the dog will very quickly learn to go to the machine the owner is looking at).
What I found particularly interesting was something that Krista said about the differences between dogs and other animals. When doing these sorts of tests on rats or pigeons, the variance in behavior is relatively small. What was particularly interesting to see is the wide range of behaviors and strategies that each dog used.
Some dogs were very thoughtful and deliberate in when they chose to move back and forth between machines. Others used brute force and just simply went back and forth between machines almost non-stop. Many dogs (especially ones trained using shaping) initially believed that behaviors they performed could influence whether a machine would pay out (common behaviors included intense staring, pawing, mouthing, nose-targeting different parts of the machine – my Beagle, Petey, offered a play bow to the 60 second machine; Arlo, Emily’s hound, offered a favorite trick – the armpit sniff – to the machine; Farley, Jenn’s Beagle, howled at the machine as if to say “Feed me now!!!”).
A handful of dogs appeared to really be “thinking about it” and there were times where it seemed like they went over to the 60 second machine to get their payout right on time. My Beagle, Petey, just decided to pick up one machine and drag it closer to the other so he didn’t have to travel as far!
Some of the dogs are highly trained (agility dogs, advanced obedience, or just a really well trained family dog) and others were pretty raw (brand new rescue, zero training) – since the activity has nothing to do with performing behavior, it seemed to me that trained dogs did not necessarily figure things out faster or better.
Here’s a few more photos I took of some of the dogs that volunteered in August. If your dog tells you they’d like to participate, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will include you in future calls for volunteers. Krista is going to be running another set of experiments on the weekend of the 18th and 19th.