People Seem Slow to Learn New Tricks

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By Dr Sophia Yin

My suspicions were confirmed the day after Christmas at the Metreon Theater downtown. As the youngest in the family, my job was to wait in line and knowing this, I went prepared—with a scientific article called, “Do dogs respond to play signals given by humans?”  The research, lead by Nicola Rooney at the Anthrozoology Institute in Southhampton, U.K., starred 21 owners who were videotaped playing with their dogs. In what surely would have been billed as a comedy, owners patted, the floor, barked, bowed, shuffled their feet, slapped their thighs, crawled on all fours, anything to get their Rovers to romp with them.

The researchers identified common actions used owners to elicit play and then tested to see which signals actually worked. Before you fall out of your seats in suspense, let me just tell you what they found. Bowing or lunging while verbally encouraging your dog usually elicits play. Tickling Fido like she’s a human infant, or stamping your feet like you’re dislodging a weeks worth of dried mud and you’re likely to just get odd looks. Even patting the floor and clapping were less than 50% successful here. And while barking at, kissing, or picking little Fido up may bring on some laughs from passersby, Fido usually fails to find these actions amusing.

Like all good plots though, the real take-home was in the secondary message. The researchers found that although some actions tended to instill silent stares and other instigated play, the frequency with which the owners used the signals was unrelated to their success. In other words owners tended to use unsuccessful gestures as frequently as successful ones.

This might surprise some, but anyone who pays attention to pet-human interactions probably sees examples of this phenomenon every day. Just last Saturday during a morning jog with my dog, a standard poodle bounced across the park to us on our jaunt. “Fanny, come! Fanny, come! Fanny, come! Fanny, come,” yelled the owner standing stationary half a football field away. Based on the poodle’s response, one might have guessed that Fanny must be some other dog, but the owner’s gaze gave himself away. “Fanny! Fanny! Fanny,” he continued as if commissioned to alert the entire area of Fanny’s presence, or maybe just to alert me that he wished Fanny would come back even though he was too lazy to walk over to get her. After following us for several hundred yards, Fanny finally broke off and headed to her handler in a round-about way.

While this episode featuring an innocent impression of Helen Keller led to no harm, consider the following case instead. Say you’re walking a dog with mild dog-dog issues, or pushing a baby carriage, or you have a healthy fear of large four-legged beasts that barrel into your personal space. So when you see a bowser bounding over, you head the other direction or call out, “Please call your dog!” Unfortunately several “Bowser’s!” later you realize you should have yelled, “Please come GET your dog…NOW!”

Well, if there’s no knocked-over baby carriage or no dog-fight ensures, what’s the big deal? That’s what owners of one large off-leash dog thought until several months ago when they came upon my mom walking her Scottie, Meggie. Meggie has a hereditary disorder that unpredictably affects her ambulation. One minute she’s running around, her wheels spinning faster than a 45 or LP. Then next her muscles go haywire and suddenly her front legs are churning in 3rd gear while her hind are stuck in first. At this point the slightest shove can topple her off her two inch stand. Even for a Scottie that is poorly equipped to defend herself, she does have an abnormally loud bark due to her oversized head. Unfortunately only blind dogs are fooled and the German Shepherd that ran up to her was not blind; however it did predictably play deaf when its owner called.

Then in a show of poor socialization after a second of nose-to-nose indecision, the dog grabbed Meggie as if she were a lambswool squeaky toy and flopped her like a fisherman tossing a striped bass onto shore. My mother fell and Meggie marched off as quickly as her mechanical-looking legs would allow. Luckily the shepherd’s owner was finally able to leash him.

While there were no broken hips and Meggie recovered after several days, the scene could have been much worse. Just as a key fall during a Superbowl riot can quickly turn a victory-celebrator into a trampled victim, a fall accompanied by screams in the presence of aroused, fighting dogs can turn a human into the new target.

These are only a few examples of our bumbling ways and the serious predicaments they can cause. Unlike other species that repeat actions that actually work, humans are happy to hope that maybe this time will be different. Maybe it’s time for us to open our eyes and evaluate whether we’re really getting a response.

Do you have an example of a situation where you wish your or someone else's dog had a good “come when called?” Share your story here.

First appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in Feb 2003

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One response to “People Seem Slow to Learn New Tricks

  1. I fully agree that owners should be capable of recalling their dogs, (which most of them are not). However, as a trainer myself with well trained dogs, I also wish people with dogs on a leash, and dogs that have dog-dog issues, would stay out of the very few available off leash spaces available. These parks are off leash precisely so that dogs can socialise and play freely. Any dog that is unable to do so can be walked safely in the 99% of parks which are not accessible to off leash dogs.

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