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June 16, 2011

gerretThe Hazards of Duke

by Gerret, file under: About Me


Yes, dear friends, yours truly, The Gerret, got accepted at Duke University. At least for today. And not just because I'm smart, but because they wanted to test just how smart I really am. Little did they know.

I was invited to participate in a study being done by the Duke Canine Cognition Center, run by Professor Brian Hare. I jumped at the chance because I remember hearing Dr. Hare's name on the Animal Channel one time. Rumor has it he's almost as smart as some dogs I know. He thinks that by studying dogs humans will "gain a window into the mind of animals as well as the evolution of our own species." It could happen.

But not today.

In retrospect, the problem was in the premise. "The majority of problems we present to dogs are very similar to those presented to young human children..." said the printout. I mean excuse me?! Young human children? Ever been around a young human child? You would waste The Gerret's intellect on child's play?

So what started out as mild amusement soon turned into a gripping battle of wills. And by the time it was all over, The Gerret had crushed the competition.

But I jump ahead.

While I didn't meet Dr. Hare, I did get to interact with several of his well-trained, loyal assistants. I believe their names were Courtnea and Mona, but I don't hear so well so corrections appreciated.


Here's the scene of the throwdown. Note that humans use lots of color tape to mark locations because they can't smell very well.

Mona started the problem solving by placing a small treat in each of two different bowls of different colors (yellow and black). I'm supposed to wait until the bowls are placed on the floor, then run over and eat a treat out of each bowl. The idea was that I'd learn to look for treats in the bowls. The problem for me was that the treats sucked.

So I said to myself, I can't keep doing this for those store-bought pieces of cardboard. How will I train these folks to provide better treats? I hit on a plan. About the third time they put treats in the bowls, I just sat there. I didn't move to either bowl. After repeating this behavior several times, I noted a learning response in the humans. Stump, who was in the room observing, offered Mona some ham jerky treats he opined might be more effective.

So they tried it again with the ham jerky. And in an effort to reward their growth and reinforce their behavior, I obediently went to each bowl several times in a row and retrieved the treat.

So having taught them how to upgrade a treat, I decided to see if I could train them into an even more complex behavior.

I quit going after the ham jerky treats in the bowls. Stone cold. When Mona put treats in the bowl, and Stump released me, I just went over and sat by the door.


Mona was thwarted. She brought in Courtnea to consult. Courtnea left and returned with an unopened can of Vienna Sausages. Human Food! I considered this a major cognitive breakthrough, and rewarded it by visiting each bowl several times and retrieving the sausage treats.

To be honest, I was overjoyed by the amount of training I'd accomplished in such a short period of time. I'd gone from cheap dog treats, to expensive dog treats to human food in maybe three-and-a-half dog hours. But I decided that now was not the time to stop with such valuable research. So the next time they put Vienna Sausages in the bowls, I just moved to another part of the room and lay down. No coaxing, no entreaties, no treat-flashing could make me budge.

The tension was palpable.

Finally, I witnessed the greatest breakthrough up till that point. Courtnea said, "If Gerret won't come to the treats, we'll bring the treats to Gerret." Hallelujah!

So Courtnea sits down in front of me with her two bowls and her Vienna Sausage and creates a treat-game where I don't even need to get up. She was practically sticking the sausage in my mouth. Since I was on a roll, I reinforced her behavior a couple of times and then returned to a state of boredom.

I probably should have stopped there, but it was obvious the staff was not tired yet so what the heck. After a bit of discussion Courtnea and Mona decided to abandon the treat-based research and see what they might learn using toys. Of course they didn't have any real toys. No sticks, no bones, no cats. But I was willing to play along.

So I'm still stretched out on the floor and Courtnea puts a blue rubber bone-sorta-thing on the floor and walks away to see if I'm interested or afraid of it. I walk over, check it out, lay next to it. No big deal. Then she puts a green toy on the floor. Again, I walk over, check it out, lay next to it. No big deal. Then she puts a yellow toy on the floor. I'm like, "been there, done that, no reward" and don't move.

Another crisis for Duke crew.

That's when Courtnea pulls out the heavy ammo. It's a remote-controlled squirrel-bear robot thing that runs around the floor and makes me get up and move. I checked it out, but it didn't smell like a squirrel or a cat or mouse or a mole or anything else I could chase, eat, kill, or intimidate, so I lay back down and started to go to sleep.

Apparently at that point they put down two toys at once to see which one I would gravitate to, but I was lost in some dream involving Coco and puppy kindergarten and ignored the whole thing. From a training standpoint, it was tough love time. I responded to nothing. My eyes drooped. I yawned.


Here I am dozing off with a weird animatronic squirrel/bear on the left and a pink rubber thing on the right.


Next thing I knew, Mona and Courtnea were kneeling next to me, having abandoned all attempts to test my behavior and instead were both petting my belly while I lay on my back with my feet in the air.

I had achieved the Holy Grail of human training and I'd accomplished it in less than seven dog hours. I will be writing up my findings in the Journal of Human Cognition Research later this year.

About June 2011

This page contains all entries posted to Gerret Swirled in June 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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