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June 04, 2007

Dog smarts

There's the old Gary Larson Far Side cartoon....

What we say to dogs: Okay, Ginger! I've had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!

What they hear: blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah...
But it turns out that dogs are highly sophisticated thinkers, about on a level of a 14-month human, if you can believe this article from the Washington Post ("What Were They Thinking? More Than We Knew.") Many dogs in an experiment used their paws to do tasks instead of their mouths, but only when the dog they were imitating had its mouth free. If the dog had its mouth occupied, the other dogs assumed it was using its paws because it had to. If its mouth was unoccupied, they realized there must be a reason it was using its paws instead of its mouth.

So here's the update of the Larson cartoon:
What they say: Woof woof woof woof woof.

What they mean: One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer which shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.
But just try getting your dog to explain quantum mechanics.