Who’s Smarter?


One of my friends has a dog, Lena, who recently tore her ACL. She’s on as much crate rest as my friend can manage. Ordinarily, Lena is a highly active dog, and keeping her quiet while her knee heals is quite a chore. Lena had surgery on her OTHER knee a few years ago, and my friend has been told that Lena’s hips are highly dysplastic, so my friend has invested a lot in finding ways to keep Lean busy while keeping her inactive. She owns lots of food-puzzles and tons of toys and Lena eats only out of Kong toys…anything to keep her occupied and prevent her from tearing the house apart.

One day my friend came home from a shopping trip, happy about a toy she found in a chain drug store (CVS) called the Fetch N Treat. It’s a low-tech toy that dispenses treats when a ball is dropped into the top. When the ball is dropped into a hole at the top, it presses a lever that makes treats sprinkle out, and the ball itself also rolls out of the toy.  My friend said that she loaded the toy with a combination of kibble and treats, and showed the ball (tennis ball-sized but heavier) to Lena, demonstrated dropping the ball into the hole at the top of the toy to Lena two times, allowing Lena to first eat the treats that were dispensed and then pick up the ball. And then Lena herself dropped the ball into the top of the toy, ate the resulting treats, fetched the ball, and did it again.

I was both impressed and a little dubious. I’ve never thought Lena was all that smart, frankly. My friend got her when she was about three or four months old, and she’s always been kind of a hardhead and slow to learn or at least, slow to learn good manners behaviors. She’s never been all that reliable with recalls or paying attention to her owner on the trail. So I had to see this for myself. I ended up driving over to my friend’s house that day to see both the toy and whether Lena could, as advertised, operate it that quickly and efficiently.

It turned out that yes, she could. My friend set it up and she went to work like a factory worker. Get the ball, drop it in, eat the treats, get the ball, drop it in, eat the treats…Score one for Lena, Nancy zero.

So what’s next? I had to drive right over to CVS and get one of the toys myself so I could see what my dogs would make of it.

Tito the Chihuahua was alternately interested in the ball and the treats. No matter how many times I demonstrated, he would either chase the ball and leave, or eat the treats and then look for more. It seemed like he couldn’t comprehend the connection between the two. But I didn’t think he would. I had higher hopes for Otto. He’s far more interested in training and learns new tasks really quickly. I’ve played shaping games with him many times, like 101 things to do with a box, and he’s always been quick to understand when I want him to find a new behavior; he’ll persist in trying behavior after behavior until he finds something that earns him a treat.

I demonstrated the toy for Otto. He, too, failed to see the connection, or at least, failed to show that he cared enough to operate it himself. He did seem to quickly grasp that treats would come out of the toy if I put the ball into the hole at the top, but he also figured out that if he nosed the toy super hard and made it fall over, the treats would spill out then, too.

I was able to coach him into bringing the ball toward the toy, and even managed to direct him into dropping it into the top of the toy, but I could see that there was no way he would have managed to do it without heavy coaching. Left to his own devices, he just started pawing and nosing the toy (he’s played with a lot of food-dispensing toys that require manipulation to dispense the treats).

Today, I drove back over to get some video of Lena operating her toy. She’s had it for about two months and her owner sets it up for her to play with a few times a week. She is an absolute expert at it now. She doesn’t get frustrated, but just tries again, if she puts the ball in and it fails to dispense a treat (sometimes they get stuck). Sometimes the ball gets stuck inside, and she’s learned to nudge the toy hard if this happens, to get the ball to roll out. She doesn’t need any encouragement or direction; she clearly understands exactly how the thing works.

So much for my understanding of canine intelligence.