Clever Hans or Cognitive Canine?

This is a copy of the original article I wrote in June 2018.

I am a big fan of concepts work and discrimination games. These are games where I teach my lurcher, Beanie, how to tell apart colours, match visual and audio patterns, use word cards to indicate whether or not patterns are identical, tell apart quantities by size and to count items, as examples.

There are some cornerstone concepts to begin with that can then be combined to create endless games for dogs to think through, decide and indicate effortlessly. Currently I’m working on teaching Beanie to indicate how many items of a sample item are contained in a larger set of mixed items. I’m teaching him to express preference for how he wants to spend his training time using word cards and verbal cues. I’m also broadening his audio matching skills to be able to indicate whether or not multiple notes played on a piano are identical to each other.

These games are excellent for active dogs with limited mobility, whether that’s due to an injury, puppyhood or old age. They build confidence for shy dogs, but also work very well for independent thinkers and draw upon our dogs’ natural abilities. I constantly scout for inspiration for new games I could teach Beanie. I read up on our dogs’ perceptual and cognitive abilities. Most importantly, I love watching Beanie’s cogs spin when we work together.

Discrimination games have a set pattern. I teach Beanie how to understand my question, draw upon his strengths (sight and smell), make up his mind and show his decision with a very easy paw or nose target. These games are my window into Beanie’s perception and cognition. The decisions he makes, especially the mistakes, show me how he sees and reasons with the world. And Beanie loves it too. Anyone who has seen our videos on The Unlikely Tricksterswon’t fail to notice how engaged he is in every game!

Recognising and working with Clever Hans

Almost every video I post brings up the Clever Hans question. Could Beanie “just” be reading any subtle cues in my body language to make the right choice? The short answer is yes but I do my best to minimise this to the extent that the game is still fun for both of us. Read on for the long answer.

Most of us know the story of Clever Hans, a horse who purportedly answered arithmetic questions. Examined further, it was discovered that he instead read subtle body language cues from his trainer. These findings have had profound consequences on experimental design in animal cognition studies. (One might argue that freestyle dancing or agility routines are just as much a symbol of dog cognition and are visibly cued by the handler on the ring without undermining the dog’s ability to impress but that is a topic for another day!)

Now I want to fess up about Beanie’s Clever Hans clues to demonstrate how simple they can be. Beanie will favour:

  1. the choice that is closer to him, both on the floor or held in my hand
  2. the choice that is closer to me, i.e. if I sit more to his left or right side
  3. the choice that is shown first out of multiple options
  4. the choice that moves
  5. the choice in the direction of my gaze or my face
  6. the choice I touch last when placing down his options

I know these because I have fastidiously recorded videos of every single training session for the past 7 months and re-watched them in slow motion, frame by frame, using software like iMovie.

This list is of great interest to me because it shows how beautifully Beanie observes me. Isn’t the fact that he can pick up on such subtle cues a testament to the strength of our relationship? If he can pick up a cue that nobody watching the video can spot, that in itself blows my mind. Beanie and I are almost psychic in daily life because that’s how much work we’ve both put into building our communication. I am very proud of that. I cannot be his voice if he didn’t know how to communicate with me and I cannot teach him if I didn’t know how to influence him.

But I am a scientist by profession. I understand how double-blind studies are designed. The ideal set-up for our games to truly eliminate confirmation bias would be for two handlers I understand that the most truthworthy cognition studies are ones where the handler is not present at all (unless bias is the topic of the study!).

So I find myself often torn about where to draw the line between my inner dog owner/enthusiast and the scientist. Simply placing the cards on the floor instead of holding them in my hand isn’t enough to eliminate handler bias. Neither is having the choices against a wall nor having him wait at a distance as I set up and leaving the room to video his choice. From a peer-reviewed cognition perspective, there is no game that we could play where I could guarantee that my mere presence in the same room as Beanie will not influence his choice.

Where does that leave us?

I’m not sure. I do my best to minimise my tells. Here’s what I do:

  1. I show my videos on mute to others to look for tells I can’t spot. I publish our videos on our Facebook page for everyone to do the same.
  2. I proof my tells, teaching him that the body language cues I am aware of are not necessarily indicative of the right answer.
  3. There are games we play where I can show opaque cards and ask for visual matches or size discrimination. I first teach Beanie the game by knowing and showing him the right answers. Eventually I move to blind versions where I don’t see the card I hold up until Beanie has made his choice. But that is not feasible for all the games we play.

Extending this line of thought, I also cannot imagine that either of us will enjoy our training time as much as we do if we had to spend it mostly apart! So I draw the line where I am happy with the trade off between strengthening our bond by working together every day and scientifically proving Beanie’s cognitive capabilities, both of which are incredibly valuable to me as his guardian and a scientist. But that means accepting that I will never know where Clever Hans ends and Cognitive Canine begins. I am fine with that.

Anyone venturing into cognition games will have to find their own balance. I believe that Beanie’s abilities are nothing short of remarkable, irrespective of where he is on the Clever Hans vs. Cognitive Canine spectrum. I value us as a team. I value my ability to teach him. I value his powers of observation. I also value his intelligence.

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