February 05, 2002

On the intelligence of dogs...

Mother dogs provide a good illustration of the onset, rate, and offset of innate motor patterns with their puppy-retrieving behavior. The mother dog is in her nest. She hears a puppy giving a distress call. She gets out of the nest, goes to the site of the sound, picks up the puppy, then carries it to the nest and places it with the other puppies. (Isn't she smart!) Puppy-retrieval motor pattern onsets after the last puppy in the litter is born. It offsets thirteen days later. After that time, a pup can give the call, but the mother does not respond by retrieving it.

The puppy's retrieval call is a fascinating motor pattern. Each call is identical in pitch, amplitude, and duration. It is a species-specific call just like a birdsong. It is only given by puppies, and only when theyare lost. It is given continually until the pup is rescued. The onset of this innate motor pattern is at birth. The offset is roughly four weeks later, at the end of the suckling period.

My Italian Maremmano-Abruzzese, Lina, got caught short one day because of her attention to sheep, and whelped her first puppy in the field. She left the puppy still attached to its placenta and returned to her nest in the barn and had the rest of her litter. The first pup called and called to be retrieved, but Lina was still giving birth. There are some big questions here. Since the puppy was just born, blind and deaf, how did it know it was lost? How did it know which was the "I'm lost" signal? Didn't it need to practice the signal, and didn't it need to be rewarded for giving the signal? No--the signal and the knowledge of when and how to use it are built into the dog; it can't possibly be learned.

Being a good dog ethologist, from my office I recognized the repetitive calling of Lina's lost puppy, and knew why Lina wasn't responding, so I went to retrieve it. I took my tape recorder and recorded the sound, because here was a lost puppy still attached to its umbilical cord giving the correct signal. Fascinating.

Why did I have to rescue the puppy? Well, the puppy had the onset of sending the retrieval call, but Lina didn't have the onset for receiving the signal, because the last pup hadn't been born yet. Six hours later, Lina was ready, but I had already rescued the pup. If the little guy had had the energy to put out the signal repetitively for six hours, I'm sure Lina would have gone back for him, once the retrieval motor pattern onset. But I think the littlde tyke would have weakened and died long before six hours passed. The call is energetically expensive, and I can't imagine there was that much energy stored in the half-pound puppy.

If Lina was so smart, why didn't she just pick him up right after he was born and take him back to the barn with her? The answer is that if Lina had been a rat, she might have, for the retrieval motor pattern turns on two days before parturition in rats. But Lina is a dog and the retrieval reflex was off until after the last puppy was born.

When my students played the tape recording of the lost Lina puppy to my border collie, Flea, she got out of her nest (none of her puppies were lost), searched for and found the tape recorder, retrieved it, and put it in her nest with the puppies. It is not lost puppies that are retrieved, it is objects that emit the vocal signal.

At the end of thirteen days the retrieve-puppy behavior turns off in the mother, even though pups will continue to send the signal for a few weeks more. One evening, all dressed up and going out on the town, I heard a weak retrieve signal coming through the pouring rain from our dog yard. Slogging out through the wet, I found the pup, exhausted, out of the box, wet and cold and literally dying. Tilly, the mother, a purebread Siberian (#45, above average on Coren's intelligence scale), was not five feet away, curled up with the rest of her pups in her box. "Tilly," I implored, "what on earth is the matter with you! Can't you hear your pup is in trouble? Don't you hear the retrieve call? Can't you reason, think, recognize that your puppy is in trouble? Don't you love it?" "Sorry boss," she said, "but the retrieval motor pattern turned off last week and I don't have any cognitive ability to be aware of the impending danger nor can I deduce it from the information I'm receiving." Heat lamps, sugar solution, and some care saved the pup, and Tilly accepted it when I returned it two hours later.

Raymond Coppinger and Linda Coppinger (2001), _Dogs_ (New York: Scribner: 0684855305).

Posted by DeLong at February 5, 2002 04:39 PM | TrackBack

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