A local TV station in Santa Barbara, California is reporting that a dog named Sydnee has been taught to count (up to ten and numbers in-between) by her owner, Maxine Davis. The dog barks the requested number of times and then receives a raisin as a reward. Hmmm. You can watch the video from KCOY-TV below.
Now, it would not rock my world in the slightest were it to be proven that a dog could learn to “count” in some form. Dogs are very smart and can learn amazing things given the right motivation. And they are miraculously adept at adapting to human habits and preferences. However, absent rigorous testing, I for one would not concede that what is seen in this video is a dog who really knows that, for instance, the word “four” means “bark four times.” In some previous examples of animals supposedly being able to count (like the horse tapping its leg on command) it has been observed that the animal was picking up cues from its owner/trainer, whether intended by that owner/trainer or not. In the video above, it’s very easy to see that the dog Sydnee may simply be barking as many times as it takes for the owner — or the reporter — to move ever so slightly indicating that the raisin is about to be offered. Dogs are superb at picking up on our body language. Our voices may lie, but rarely do our movements. It could be a change in facial expression, the beginning of the movement of the hand downwards, a general relaxation of the limbs, or any combination of these things which the dog picks up on and so realizes, “I should stop barking now: the raisin is on its way.”
The dog doesn’t care what you think about what it’s doing, or what you call it (“counting” in this case). It only cares that its pattern of behavior is succeeding in getting the reward from you. Dogs have highly admirable, practical minds.
I’m not saying that the owner in this case is trying to pull one over on anyone; I’m only saying that it would take a whole lot more testing to see what’s really going on here.
I will say without hesitation, however, that Sydnee could stand to lose quite a few pounds. So many of us are killing our dogs (and cats) with overfeeding, and it’s a shame. I doubt it’s just the raisins making her plump, but it should be noted that it is widely believed that raisins are bad for a dog’s health in general, and grapes likewise. A little for such a big dog is probably no big deal, but Sydnee obviously gets more than just a little. (Personally, I think that good little treats for dogs are things like Cheerios and unsalted peanuts.)