At the agility trial this weekend, I observed people asking their dog repeatedly to do something. “Sit, sit, sit, sit, Murphy, sit!” I understand that sometimes you have to ask your dog more than once to do something, especially when in a highly stimulating environment – but do yourself a solid and be firm enough the first time so as not to teach your dog to count when training him… unless you’re training your dog to pursue a career in card counting. Keep in mind, though, that he’d probably look kind of suspicious sitting at a poker table in Vegas, though perhaps a hat and sunglasses would allow him to blend in. I think card counting is frowned upon, isn’t it? In any case, do not teach your dog to count. Let’s consider a situation involving our canine friend Murphy: If you ask Murphy to stay away from the cake on the kitchen counter (the cake that Aunt Mildred brought over for Uncle Irving’s surprise 70th birthday party), and he refuses to leave it alone, you must get up from your couch and walk to the kitchen. Yes, get up, even if it means—gasp!—missing the last five minutes of the season finale of The Masked Singer. Follow through with your request that Murphy relinquishes possession of Uncle Irving’s cake. He needs to understand that your requests are to be obeyed and that they are not merely guidelines which he may or may not choose to follow. If you do not follow through, but instead repeat the command over and over from the comfort of your living room sofa, margarita in hand, he will quickly learn that until you’ve asked him three times, there will be no consequences to his disobedience.
For those of you who erroneously believe that Murphy cannot count, I suggest you read the numerous studies that have proven otherwise. Go ahead, look up the study by researchers Rebecca West of the U.K. and Robert Young of Brazil. For this experiment, researchers took eleven dogs and put bowls in front of them. Each bowl was initially obscured by a screen. They put treats in the dogs’ bowls. They allowed the dogs to see the number of treats the researchers had in their hands, though they didn’t actually see the researchers put the treats in the bowl since the bowl was behind a screen. The screen was then removed to reveal the bowl. The dogs didn’t pay much attention when the researchers put in two treats, as long as they saw two treats in the bowl when the screen was removed. The dogs did, however, express confusion when the math didn’t work out—such as when they saw just one treat in the bowl. Wouldn’t you be confused, too, if one of your cookies was missing? I know that I would find it completely unacceptable for someone to pilfer one of my chocolate chip cookies—that is, unless it’s December 24th and it’s Santa Claus who absconded with said cookie.
It makes sense that dogs would have to be able to count to some extent or, at the very least, discern when something doesn’t add up. Think about it: how would it look if I, as a herding breed, were to take my ten sheep out to pasture in the morning and return in the evening with only seven? What kind of a shepherd would I be? Evolution has been kind enough to bestow upon me the ability to keep track of the sheep in my charge and, most importantly, know if one is missing. So, go ahead, keep reading study after study—or better yet, do your own experiment. Show your dog that you have two treats, then only give him one. How does he react? Does he walk away, content with the treat you gave him? Or is he still sitting there, waiting for you to give him the other treat?