Is Virtual Fun in Your Dog's Future?
By Kim Boatman
Browse the aisles of your local pet store these days, and you’ll see the evolution of the dog toy, from synthetic bones constructed of new-age materials to flying discs that dispense treats. What you won’t find -- just yet -- are computer games for your pooch. But could you one day have to not only fight the kids for computer time, but wrestle with man’s best friend as well for a spot in front of the screen?
In a new study, researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria conducted research on dogs that identified and differentiated images using touch-screen computers. The study offered intriguing insights on a couple of fronts:
- The ability of dogs to use computers In the experiment, dogs used touch-screen monitors at doggie-eye level, shielded by screens on both sides to prevent distraction. A hidden automated feeder device dispensed food pellets as a reward through a small hole underneath the screen. A human was in the room to help ease the dogs’ nerves. Researchers used clicker training to teach the dogs to touch their noses to the screens in response to images. “I think we are all surprised how well this new method works and especially how much the dogs like it!’’ says researcher Friederike Range. “It would not work unless the dogs enjoy this kind of work.’’
- The ability of dogs to form abstract concepts Range and her colleagues found that dogs could classify complex photographs into categories, much as you or I would. Researchers showed the dogs photos of landscapes and dogs. The dogs were rewarded with pellets when they selected a dog photo. Then, when shown different dog and landscape photos, the dogs were still able to select dog photos. In a second test, dogs were shown new photos of landscapes without dogs and landscapes with dogs; they still selected the dog photos. It’s uncertain whether the dogs in the experiment recognized the dogs in the photos as actual dogs, but they were able to categorize the images.
“It shows dogs can form some fairly esoteric concepts,’’ says Dr. Stanley Coren, a University of British Columbia psychology professor and author of How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind (Free Press).
The age of the doggie computer geek has not dawned quite yet, though, say Coren and other experts. They cite several reasons for this:
- Vision limitations “Dogs are all nearsighted,’’ says Coren. “If they were human beings, and they could drive, they would have to wear glasses.’’ While dogs have enhanced night vision, they also have less color perception, says Carolyn Georgariou, a dog behaviorist in upstate New York. Your dog processes sensory input with its nose first, ears second and eyes last, says Georgariou.
- The need for companionship While we all know people who are quite content to spend hours in the company of their computer, your dog isn’t likely to sit in front of a screen when it could be frolicking with you.
- Training time It could take time and patience to train your pal to operate a touch screen, not to mention you’d need a touch screen to begin with. As Coren wryly puts it, “A dog’s paws are not good enough to make it a decent typist.’’
Still, the concept of dogs using computers has potential. “It shows the computer is adaptable for certain kinds of cognitive testing on dogs,’’ Coren says. Some day, says Range, it might help latchkey dogs pass the time while their owners are at work.
Computer games could offer mental stimulation and help keep dogs alert and engaged, says Range. There might be a useful component for humans, too. Some training, particularly for assistance dogs, might be conducted using computer games or programs that teach the dogs to recognize certain symbols. While the experts don’t know of any dog computer games in the works, Range’s research opens the possibility for some enterprising company to take on the challenge.
But, of course, no virtual world will replace the sort of old-fashioned, time-tested play your dog needs. Technology can’t improve on a good ol’ romp outside for a game of fetch or Frisbee with your dog.
Kim Boatman is a journalist based in Northern California. She is also the managing editor of ExceptionalCanine.com. Boatman's work has appeared in The Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News. She is a lifelong lover of animals, and a frequent contributor to The Dog Daily.