Are dogs able to read?
Busy the amazing reading dog. If you follow this site you will know that Busy and I volunteer for Pets As Therapy as part of the Read2dogs scheme. We visit a school twice a week, working with around 25 children, helping them read, as well as improving their confidence, focus and conversation skills. We are about to start visiting a second school, which I know they are excited about 🙂
I love helping children to read and to have Busy there makes a huge difference. She is so calm and gentle, taking her work very seriously. Even children who are not confident with dogs find her reassuring and patient; they love being able to make a fuss of her and she definitely improves their behaviour.
I read about another Pets As Therapy dog being taught to ‘read’ so decided to give it a go with Busy. This post has a video clip of my first attempt. I took my bits of paper into school and amazed everyone with her ‘reading abilities’. We have practised this many times over the past few weeks, with varying results. The school have now made me some smart, laminated cards with which to perform.
Best trick ever?
Here is a clip showing our best effort now:
So can she read? It’s hard to say watching this, isn’t it? I decided to do a test – could she perform as well with Chris? Here is the result:
I think the answer is clear; Chris cannot perform as well as me! Poor dog, getting rewarded at the wrong time and being expected to read upside down!
I think this shows two features of Border Collie behaviour that are very common: patterning and anticipation. But what are these and what does this have to do with reading?
Patterning behaviour is when a dog (or person, or any animal) learns that a particular sequence of behaviour generates a reward. This leads to them following the exact same pattern of behaviour, in order to achieve the reward. That’s great, except when the animal is accidentally rewarded for the wrong behaviour, which then reinforces that pattern, not the correct one. The animal then persists with the wrong pattern, believing that it will lead to the reward.
The first time I learnt about this was during my psychology degree, learning about rats performing simple tasks to receive food, such as pressing a bar. Apparently one rat accidentally learnt that picking up its tail in its mouth and shuffling across the cage before pressing the bar was what was needed to earn the reward, rather than simply pressing the bar. (It was a long time ago, I’m sure they don’t do these experiments now.)
Another example can be seen in every agility lesson. A dog is given a sequence of obstacles and then given a reward (ball being thrown). After doing it three times, a Border Collie will then continue to perform that sequence, even though its handler is frantically shouting and pointing at the tunnel!
So we see in the videos above that Busy is performing the actions, because she knows that ‘one of these gets the reward’. So not reading then?
Another thing that Border Collies in particular are extremely good at is anticipating what comes next. They are bright dogs, able to plan and problem solve. They very often outthink us, expecting that we will do something, sometimes before we know it ourselves!
That is also what Busy is doing in these videos – I know you’re going to ask me to do this, so I’ll go ahead and do it anyway. She is trying to please – is it this? Or this? Love her. So not reading then?
And yet… Reading is simply a question of pattern recognition. We look at a letter enough times to know what sound it makes. We try to build up these sounds into words, so that we can learn new words. Then we learn what a word as a whole looks like, so that we know what is says. We practise, we repeat, until we can read thousands of words and understand their meaning automatically.
Being able to read is a mystic art that challenges many children. Particularly in English, building a word through sounds is nigh on impossible; ‘through’ and ‘nigh’ being two perfect examples. And actually, it really is the shape of the word that is important.
If I wtire tihs snetncee wtih the wrods jmulbed up, yuo cna sitll raed it, cna’t you?
(That was very hard to type, with flipping autocorrect on!)
I believe that Busy understands that the cards represent commands for actions she has to perform. I think she really can tell the difference between the three cards. She has the intelligence and visual acuity to do this. However, if I ask her to tell me “which one says ‘sit'” she won’t be able to, because she doesn’t understand the function of reading and doesn’t appreciate that words convey meaning. Can she read? Yes she can, but only in the context of performing this trick. I could probably, with patience, expand the trick to include other words, or we could just play ball. We’ll see.
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