Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dog Smarts

"It is absurd to divide people into good or bad. People are either charming or tedious." ~ Oscar Wilde

According to veteran freelance writer Robert Brault, http://www.robertbrault.com/, "Charisma is a fancy name given to the knack of giving people your full attention." Having a knack for something indicates a genetic predisposition; either you have it or you don't. While we can  hone our social skills, the ability to "charm some one's pants off " comes with the territorial DNA. We've all admired the sparkling beacon in the center of a pantless crowd and muttered, "Maybe she's born with it." Whatever the source of the magic, the results are easily measured by the reactions. Case in point: a certain golden retriever named Gracie.

She is the canine "It" girl and I'd like to think that this assessment is not the product of a stage mother's pride. I've witnessed her ability to engage and amuse without any coercion from my end of the leash. No doubt about it, she was born with it.

As Grace adds to her growing ranks of admirers I often hear, "She's so smart!" While I can't disagree that she is entertaining as she jockeys for attention and executes her repertoire of tricks, I haven't attributed her actions to a heightened sense of intelligence. Perhaps I've let her affable nature and goofball countenace get in the way of a fair assessment; can problem-solving and the desire to roll in deer poop coexist in an enlightened creature? Well, boys and girls, according to the results of a fifth grade science project, the answer is yes. Feel free to roll in deer poop without damaging your academic status.

About a month ago, I received an e-mail from Candice Cunningham, the owner of Gracie's alma mater, Positive Paws Training School, http://www.positivepaws.org/.  Amelia Smith, a local fifth grader, needed help in compiling data for her science fair project, "Dog Smarts - What's Going on Behind Those Puppy Dog Eyes?" 

Hi Everyone,

I would like to ask all of you to consider participating in this Science Project with your dog! On Monday (2/7) Amelia and Paula (Amelia's mom) will be at our Hopewell Location ready to interview any willing dog and owner. They will arrive around 5:30 and prepare to "test" dogs before class and during class.  Each dog test will take about 3 minutes. Students that are currently enrolled in the 6pm Elementary Level or 7pm High School Level class will have the opprtunity to participate during class. Any other interested people should plan to arrive around 5:30pm to participate before the 6pm class begins.

Again, please do consider helping Amelia with her science project.

Unable to pass up the opportunity to do something fun with the diva and perhaps settle the intelligence question, I packed up her highness and headed to Positive Paws' Hopewell Junction, New York location at the Golden Dog Grooming Salon. Owners and their puppies were preparing for class while Amelia conducted her tests in the back of the room. Gracie stood in the doorway, set to full exuberance and ready for a good time as we took our place in line and observed as the other participants were put through their paces.

Watching the black and white blur of a border collie whizzing through his tasks, I looked at Grace and said, "We can leave now if you'd like." Apparently unaware of the vaudevillian's advice to never follow a dog act, she grinned and chose to stay. We introduced ourselves to Amelia and her mother Paula and prepared to determine the extent of Gracie's genius. Poised and focused, Amelia described the three tests and explained the facets of intelligence each would measure. Impressed by Amelia's sweet, yet serious nature I imagined that her mother must be proud of her daughter and  her dedication to her project. I remained skeptical as to whether or not my four-legged debutante would do the same for me.

Does a dog realize that an object still exists even when they can't see it?

Amelia showed a treat to Gracie and then placed it under a tin on the floor. Lassie did not immediately tell me that Timmy was in the well, but she did knock the tin over after I jiggled it a little, demonstrating that she was indeed aware of the treat's out of sight existence.

How well does a dog understand spatial relationships between objects, especially horizontal objects?

Holding a pillow on a tray above Gracie's eye level, Amelia showed her a treat and then dropped it on the pillow, which was used to silence the treat's landing. Gracie's gaze went to the pillow, a sign that she understands the way that horizontal objects relate to each other. I filled out her application to Harvard in my mind.

Can a dog figure out how to get around an obstacle to retrieve a desired object?

Amelia showed Gracie a treat and then dropped it behind a V-shaped barrier formed by two chairs on their sides. Gracie quickly went around the chairs to retrieve her prize, rather than barreling through the barricade. Her response may have been because she had encountered this situation before, or is adept at looking at physical problems and coming up with solutions. Either way, hers was the big-money response and she went to the head of the class. I mailed her application to Harvard in my mind.

Three weeks later, I attended the Science Fair at Amelia's school. Standing in front of her beautifully designed  presentation, she fielded questions and explained her research like a seasoned pro. She had tested 100 dogs and displayed the results with carefully executed charts and graphs. Normalizing the scores ( 3 being the highest ), she arrived at a mean score of 2. Only 8 dogs scored below 2, and while she did observe differences in breed performance, Amelia concluded that, overall, there is a lot of thought and intelligence behind those puppy dog eyes. Sorry if I doubted you, Grace.

Photos:   1.Amelia with Gracie at the Golden Dog Grooming Salon. 2. Amelia and her presentation at the Science Fair. 3. Gracie's 15 minutes of fame.

Thanks to Paula Smith and her daughter Amelia. Her interest in dogs continues beyond her project and has led her to competing in Junior Showmanship with her Norwich terrier, Diesel. I hope to follow her progress and look forward to seeing her at Westminster one day.


  1. as always, i look forward to your good reads, and several uncontained outbursts of laughter...

  2. TWO PAWS UP ..way up! I don't know who to be more impressed with...Amelia, Amelia's mom, Gracie, or Gracie's mom.

    GOOD GIRL Joan!!! Treat yourself to something special.

  3. Great story, and best of luck to Amelia and Diesel as they "show" who's top dog.

  4. My dearest Amelia and little munchkin; you haven't seen anything yet. THE BEST IS YET TO COME! I'm so proud of you both.


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