Sometimes I wonder if my dog is smarter than I am

I hate it when my dog outsmarts me. Last week Sparky, our six-year-old Jack Russell terrier, escaped from the family backyard again. We have a big fenced backyard, which Sparky and our other two dogs roam like sovereigns patrolling their kingdom. Every once in a while — just to get my attention, I suspect, — Sparky breaks out. Usually he just runs around to the front of the house so he can laugh at my consternation. I scold him, shut him back in the yard, and set out to prevent his escaping again.

The problem is, I have never been able to figure out how Sparky gets out. The gates to the backyard are shut and locked, and there are no obvious holes in the fence.

But with this escape I thought I had him. There had been snow on the ground for weeks. Surely, by carefully inspecting the perimeter of the yard, I could find out at last how this clever canine was getting out.

Nope. Search though I might, I could find no holes in the fence, no paw prints, no tunnels in the snow. Sparky had escaped without leaving a trace.

Of course my daughters laughed at my inability to solve this simple problem. “Have you ever considered the possibility,” my daughter Nikki asked, “that Sparky is simply smarter than you?”

Now there’s a question to keep you up at night.

Are dogs smart? Can animals think? I bet each of us could tell a story not so different from Sparky’s, about how a pet dog or cat seemed to have reasoning ability. But are these stories just reflections of our own tendency to “humanize” our pets? What do scientists think?

For many decades, scientists that study animal behavior flatly rejected the notion that nonhuman animals can think. The prevailing approach was to treat animals as though they responded to their surrounding with reflex-like behaviors.

In recent years, however, researchers have begun to pay serious attention to the possibility that animals show cognitive behavior — that is, that they process information and use it to draw reasoned conclusions, what you and I call thinking.

What kind of behavior would demonstrate thinking in animals? Some birds in cities remove the foil caps from nonhomogenized milk bottles to get at the cream beneath, and this behavior is known to have spread within a population to other birds. Japanese monkeys called macaques learn to float grain on water to separate it from sand. A chimpanzee pulls the leaves off of a tree branch and uses the stick to probe the entrance to a termite nest and gather termites. A sea otter uses a rock as an “anvil,” against which it bashes a clam to break it open. A sea otter will often keep a favorite rock for a long time, as though it has a clear idea of what it is going to use the rock for. Anecdotal observations like these certainly suggest that animals have at least a limited ability to think.

Some experiments on animal cognition are hard to explain in any other way. In a series of classic experiments conducted in the 1920s, a chimpanzee was left in a room with a banana hanging from the ceiling out of reach. Also in the room were several boxes, each lying on the floor. After unsuccessful attempts to jump up and grab the banana, the chimpanzee suddenly looks at the boxes and immediately proceeds to move them underneath the banana, stack one on top of another, and climb up to claim its prize. On a bad day, I might not have figured that out as quickly.

Nor is “thinking behavior” limited to primates like chimpanzees. Professor Bernd Heinrich of the University of Vermont recently conducted an experiment using a group of hand-reared ravens (a bird like a crow, only bigger) that lived in an outdoor aviary. Heinrich placed a piece of meat on the end of a string and hung it from a branch in the aviary. The birds like to eat meat, but had never seen string before and were unable to get at the meat.

After several hours of gazing longingly at the meat, one bird flew to the branch, reached down with its foot, grabbed at the string, pulled a few inches of it up, and placed them under its foot. He then reached down and grabbed another length of the string, pulling it up under its foot too. Repeating this action over and over, the bird brought the meat ever closer. Eventually the meat was within reach and was grasped and eaten.

The raven, presented with a completely novel problem, had devised a solution. Eventually, three of the other five ravens also figured out how to get the meat. This experiment leaves little doubt in my mind that ravens can “think.”

So does Sparky sit in the yard and plan ways to break out? I don’t doubt it for a minute.

So if a dog can figure out how to escape our backyard, why can’t I? My daughter suggests that the family lock ME in the yard after dinner, and let ME try to find a way out. This is not an experiment I am eager to carry out, but if any of my readers has a better idea — one that does not involve locking me up — I’d like to hear it.

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