GAINESVILLE — Here at Camp Marlin Doggy Daycare, University of Florida psychologist Clive Wynne and three graduate students are testing canine intelligence.
The first subject: a fat, friendly basset hound named Delta.
As Delta sniffs around, two of the students position themselves several feet away. One holds a book in front of her face, the other leaves her face uncovered.
"Come, Delta,'' they call in unison.
Delta ignores the student whose face is shielded. Instead, she goes directly to the student whose face she can see and is rewarded with a treat.
The students repeat the test, but take turns hiding their faces with the book. Each time, Delta goes to the student making direct eye contact, and each time she gets a treat.
Given her ample girth, the tests seem to confirm that Delta's main ability is scrounging food. But to Wynne, they also show she is smart enough not to waste time with someone who isn't paying attention to her.
"Look how beautifully Delta fits into this world,'' Wynne says. "She obviously has found enough to eat, she's good at making friends and getting treats. In the human world, this dog is just as smart as she needs to be.''
After studying hundreds of dogs representing dozens of breeds, Wynne remains unconvinced that canines have human-type intelligence, as many dog lovers insist. In his book Do Animals Think?, praised by one reviewer as "refreshingly skeptical,'' Wynne argues that dogs and other animals don't have the ability to reflect on what they are doing — a key element of thinking.
What dogs do have, Wynne and his students say, is a remarkable sensitivity to the behavior and moods of the humans around them.
That's why a dog might look "guilty'' when scolded by its owner for eating the Christmas turkey or act happy when someone heads for the door with a leash. And more dramatically, it's why dogs can detect subtle changes in a human's behavior that might signal an impending seizure or panic attack.
Rather than look at dogs as near-humans, albeit with a lot more hair, we should appreciate them for the unique creatures they are, Wynne says:
"Our aim is to understand dog intelligence and the amazing relationship with human beings. The way dogs read us and the way their minds work is different than our minds, but we understand each other well enough to have happy lives together.''
'A richer animal'
Wynne, 48, hails from the Isle of Wight off England's southern coast. Growing up, his best friend was a floppy-eared mutt who accompanied him on long walks on the beach.
"Benji was very important to me,'' Wynne says. "He seemed to understand me at a time in life when parents don't.''
The dog, who cocked his head as if hanging onto Wynne's every word, prompted a lifetime fascination with animal psychology and intelligence. Much of Wynne's early research, though, was with pigeons.
Even pigeons have some ability to reason, he showed. But several years ago Wynne began to realize that one problem with studying pigeons is that they are, well, pigeons, and not very interesting to most people.
"Dogs are a much richer animal,'' he says. "You can't tell people enough about dogs.''
Since they were domesticated from wolves as many as 30,000 years ago, dogs have spread to every corner of the globe and played valuable roles in human society — hunting, herding and protecting, as well as providing companionship and assisting the handicapped. Recent studies have shown that dogs, with their powerful sense of smell, can even detect odors emitted by lung cancer and other diseases.
Today there are an estimated 75 million pet dogs in the United States. More households have dogs than children, and, anecdotally at least, more people sleep with dogs than sleep with other people.
"The relationship many people have with dogs is more intimate than with any person,'' he says. "But what do we know about them from the scientific point of view?''
To determine how smart dogs are, Wynne and his team of grad students needed lots of dogs. At first they put up fliers around town offering "Doggy Intelligence Testing,'' but it proved too time consuming for researchers to drive all over Gainesville.
Eventually they decided to "go where the dogs are,'' as Wynne puts it — first, a local dog park, and more recently, Camp Marlin Doggy Daycare. For $23, owners can drop off their pets to socialize and exercise with other pooches.
All experiments involving animals must be approved by the university even though "ours are harmless, and it seems to be as much fun for the dogs as it is for us,'' Wynne says.
On a recent day, that certainly appeared to be the case as Delta, the basset hound; Sugar, the boxer; and Bella, the Boston terrier, excitedly sniffed and scampered around during breaks between tests.
Delta was clearly the winner, both on the book-hiding-the-face test and the one in which the dog is supposed to go to a metal paint can to which a researcher points. Sugar eventually went to the can, but only after sitting down for several seconds in front of the researcher.
"Sugar is clearly a very well-bred pup that knows that if you want to get something from humans you need to sit politely,'' Wynne says.
Dog owners tend to take the test results in stride. Those whose dogs perform well "are very happy while those whose dogs don't do so well say Fido is still a lovable dog,'' Wynne notes.
From the researchers' perspective, one breed of dog isn't necessarily more intelligent than others. The real measure of a dog's smarts is how successfully it lives among humans or performs the role for which it was bred.
Labrador retrievers and border collies — often considered the smartest breeds — tend to do well on the pointing test because they have been bred to work with humans and follow human instructions and hand commands. But Anatolian shepherds tend to fare poorly on the same tests because they are bred to guard rather than to chase after things.
Even though some individual dogs are capable of impressive feats of learning — a border collie named Rico understood 200 words — Wynne says most dogs are simply reacting to human behavior and cues.
Case in point: the guilty-looking dog.
In one famous experiment by a Barnard College researcher, dogs acted guilty when they were scolded by their owners even if they had done nothing wrong. In fact, those dogs acted guiltier than pets that did misbehave but were not admonished by their owners.
"Thus the dog's guilty look is a response to the owner's behavior and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds,'' the study found.
Although UF doesn't have an animal psychology department, Wynne teaches classes on the subject as well as courses on regular human psychology. He has applied for, but has yet to receive, federal grants to broaden his study of dog behavior and learning capacity.
Despite his research, which has drawn the attention of Nova Science and the Discovery Channel, Wynne hasn't owned a dog in years. His son has a cat, but Wynne has no interest in studying feline intelligence.
"You can work with dogs for 30 minutes,'' he says. "It's hard to get five minutes out of a cat.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.