Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I Call Bullshit

Read this article today:
Researchers at the University of Florida have found that dogs have the intelligence of a 2-year-old. They are capable of understanding the meaning of up to 165 words and gestures, can count to 5, and can perform simple mathematical calculations.

It's further expanded here:
While dogs ranked with the 2-year-olds in language, they would trump a 3- or 4-year-old in basic arithmetic, Coren found. In terms of social smarts, our drooling furballs fare even better.

"The social life of dogs is much more complex, much more like human teenagers at that stage, interested in who is moving up in the pack and who is sleeping with who and that sort of thing," Coren told LiveScience.

Now, I am an unabashed dog person. I've had dogs all my life. I've had some very smart, very well-trained dogs. And, to be honest, I pretty much expected the early part of child rearing to resemble nothing so much as basic dog training, since infants can't speak and probably don't know all that much. You know, be very clear with boundaries, repeat yourself a lot as you try to mime out what you want them (not) to do, and attempt to decipher whether their whining means they are hungry, or thirsty, or need to go to the bathroom / get a diaper change. Upshot: had you asked me before I acquired said toddler, I probably would have agreed with this study, or at least think it was reasonable.

Wow, was I wrong.

Case in point: I've not had the luxury of a fenced-in yard in my adulthood. So every dog, smart or not, has had to deal with being chained. I make the chaining as easy as possible. I attach it with a swivel to a yard stake, or sometimes a tree or pole depending on the yard. I make it nice and long. I put minimal obstacles in the animal's way. I make sure they can come right up to the door. Each and every one of these dogs managed to tangle themselves in some unlikely object, or sometimes around the pole itself despite the swivel or noose. Usually it's a simple matter of unwinding to get the dog loose. None of the dogs ever mastered it. My current dog - a lab/border collie mix - will consider herself "stuck" if the rope gets weighted down under a stick, and she'll refuse to come to the door even if I call her and tell her that she's not actually tangled. I actually have to go out into the yard and physically pick the stick up off the rope before she'll stop barking. So much for the smart breeds. My 18-month-old can wind and unwind himself into a slinky he plays with. He's mastered both winding up the jack-in-the-box and cheating with the latch. He knows how to build towers with Duplos. Hell, if you let him he'll take the house keys from you in the carseat, slide down out of the car, walk up to the door, hike up the steps, open the screen, and try his very best to insert the key in the doorhandle.
Side note: Yes, I've watched him do this. No, it's not the right key. Yet. But he's a little too short to figure that one out. And who the hell taught him how to run the remote? How to open up the oven? The other day he tried on my sunglasses and ran to the mirror to see how he looked. Can you picture a dog, presuming one would tolerate you putting sunglasses on it's nose, doing that?
Another example: The other day, my son spilled some milk from his sippy cup. I jokingly told him to go wipe it up. He went and got a spit rag and did so. This was not taught, other than by mimicry. The kid is pre-verbal, but he not only gets what I'm saying, he does it without having me explicitly show him how to do it. Again, can you picture a dog doing anything like that? Yes, I'm aware dogs don't have opposable thumbs and so probably can't get a rag. But how many times have I said: "Cut that out;" or "If you'd just go in the other room you'd see that your ball is there, stop bugging me;" or "No, I'm not taking you on a walk, get out of my way;" or "You're not stuck, you idiot dog, just go around because I am NOT coming out there in the rain to untangle you?" These phrases that tell the dogs something within their capability that relates to how to solve their own, immediate problem, but I've never a single one understand them as they are spoken in casual "conversation." Granted, you can train a dog to wipe up spills. But I've yet to hear of one who just decides to wipe up a spill because it saw one and you mentioned it should do so, and it knew how from watching you do it before.

Both understanding abstract directions and extrapolating desired actions from mimicry and contextual speech are, therefore, decidedly in favor of the toddler. But what about that whole vocabulary thing?

I totally believe that dogs have a 165 word vocabulary. 100 of those words are various synonyms for the word food, or names of individual foods or phrases like "Did you feed the dog?" At least 50 involve "go" phrases like "go for a walk" or "go outside" or synonyms for playing or toys. About 7 are actual commands - sit, stay, lie, speak, down and maybe rollover or heel. The rest are extraneous things specific to the dog. I had one smart enough to interpret "back off" to mean "back up", and "hang on" to mean stand still and wait a moment. That was my smartest dog - a beagle, surprisingly enough. My kid's lagging a touch verbally from his milestones, he only says a few words. Which I am NOT going to stress over, since there's nothing wrong with him mentally or physically and everybody ends up talking sooner or later. I have a few of those "learn to sign" videos as part of our Baby Einstein (read: baby crack) collection which I haven't really done much with other than let him watch them. I may have repeated the signs once or twice when we first got the DVDs at about six months old, but not with any consistency. My bad, since I've actually taken ASL as a foreign language in college. I'm such a slacker mommy. As for the DVD itself, it's in a rotation with about 20 Baby Einsteins, two Sesame Streets, five Curious Georges, a couple of Thomas the Tank Engines, and four Muppet Shows, as well as unlimited Blues Clues and Caillou on Netflix. So it's not like he sees it very often. Yet the other day, the kid drops his sippy cup, looks up at me, and says "more" while approximating the correct sign for it. He also understands words that refer to his toys, as a dog does. But he doesn't only get them in reference to the toy itself, like a dog might. He gets them in abstract references, like having the toy mentioned in a book and linking it to the actual object in the room. The first one I know of for sure was "balloon." He'd gotten a balloon for Halloween, at approximately 10 months old. We were subsequently reading a story in which a balloon was featured. When we got to that page, he immediately looked up and found his balloon in the far corner of the ceiling. I've yet to have a dog enjoy a good picture book, or get that the two-dimensional picture refers to a three-dimensional actual object in the room. I've had several that decided that doorbell sounds on the television were real, and barked furiously. But I tend to think that's not exactly a sign of intelligence.

No, dogs are not smarter than toddlers. They're not even close. They are warm, fuzzy, sloppy, silly friends who make our lives so much better for their unconditional love. They also have a great deal of intelligence of their own, doggy type. I do believe they have emotions. I do believe they have some abstract thought. I don't believe they think like us, nor can we expect them to.

No comments: