Sue Anne Zollinger

February 5, 2003

Post #1607 – 20030205

Hi there,

I, too, heard your NPR story about teaching your dog to read commands and went right home and taught my dog the same… But showing off to some other grad students (we are all ethologists) we debated whether my dog had actually learned to differentiate these patterns (text on card) visually or if she is responding to some other subtle cues from the person holding the cards… a la Clever Hans (the counting horse of historical fame). Do you have a sense with Lulu about which it really is?

ps. just re-read the snarkout boys books and was inspired by Rat to make a t-shirt that says: “stereo is for sissies”

Daniel replies:

Well, the idea of teaching her to recognize block-printed words started with my observation that she was a careful TV watcher, and appeared to be able to sustain attention, and follow action on the screen. In particular I watched her observing a long shot of a running wolf, (her favorite kind of program, naturally), and saw her follow it as it diminished in size and disappeared from the picture in the upper left corner. I experimented briefly to ascertain whether she had interest in pictures on paper--(again, animal subjects appealed to her). Then I taught her to recognize printed commands.

She can now recognize, Sit, Down, Speak, Kiss (this is not a lick, but a light touching of the muzzle to my hand), Paw, and Quiet (this card has a drawing of a yellow plastic lemon juice container, with the word superimposed--the actual lemon juice, a training aid which she has tasted precisely once, has the word printed on it). In the past three weeks, with a new puppy in the house, I endeavored to give Lulu lots to think about and receive praise for, (to keep her in a good mood, and help her deal with the death of her companion, which remarkably preceded the arrival of the puppy by a day), by teaching her Right Paw and Left Paw, and to say her name, which she can do approximately, and understands that she will only get rewarded for a two-syllable expression, such as ""woo-woo"" which is close enough.

Lulu will _only_ work for rewards. I shave faux bacon treats into toothpick-size and then cut them in half. (It turns out that the size of treats is irrelivant, as long as the dog gets something).

Lulu seems to be able to read all sizes and styles of block printing. I have, on occasion, asked people to print commands on napkins, and show them to Lulu, with me out of her line of sight. Depending on who it is, and what sort of crumbs they offer, she does about as well as she does when I show her the cards, (maybe 80%--her errors are typical of the way this primitive sled dog responds to commands in general, anticipating, goofing, teasing, trying to initiate play, and combining behaviors, such as offering Left Paw, then Right Paw, and Speaking while lying Down). But that is just Lulu trying to wrest control. Other times she will be completely silly and merely clown.

I don't know for sure how much she is ""reading"" and how much she is reading off me. As I mentioned the past three weeks have been traumatic for Lulu with the death of the old yellow Lab, Maxine, and the appearance, (we had been on a very long waiting list), of a 9-week-old yellow Lab puppy who had washed out of guide dog training. Lulu has accepted the puppy and is even happy, but she was badly messed up when Maxine died. So we have had a lot of sessions, conversing, walking, playing, reading. The other night she turned up beside my desk, and we played the reading game without cards or spoken commands. She got five or six right in a row before I somehow broke concentration. I was doing my best not to tip her off with facial expressions or any changes in body language, and she was looking at the treat in my hand rather than my face, for example--but, of course, I can't say what subvocalization, olfactory elements, nearly-invisible muscle twitches, sounds of salivation, or--who can say?--brain waves she might have been picking up.

This is the best I can do at the moment. Possibly later you can just email Lulu.