Dogs and Balls: A Timeless Romance. Oh, is that not an actual book? It should be. If balls are on dogs’ minds, then the people interested in those minds have to think about balls. And think about balls they do.
Balls have made their way into countless studies of the canine mind. For example, to explore whether dogs attend to “size violation” — where an object disappears behind a screen only to come out on the other side “magically” different in size — researchers selected a ball as the object to change. For reasons that are not entirely clear, female but not male dogs attended to this unexpected event. Another study wanted to know whether dogs prefer things that are new (they do!). A colorful plastic ball and a “yellow doughnut made from a tennis ball type material” were two of the five test objects. And to explore whether dogs use indirect information to solve a problem (i.e., inferential reasoning skills) another study with three separate experiments incorporated, yes, balls. They found dogs could solve problems using visual information, but social information provided by a person, like gesturing, could overcome what dogs had seen. And who can forget the queen of balls, Chaser the Border collie, who I’ve written about here and here. Chaser the Border collie knows the names of over 1,000 different objects, and, among other things, she can identify objects that fall into different categories. She knows that “toys” are different from “balls” which are different from “Frisbees.”
Researchers have even identified what can best be described as an “asking for a ball” bark — produced when a ball is held in front of a dog, and, yes, the dog would like the ball please. People had a more difficult time identifying “asking for a ball” barks than aggressive- or alone-produced barks. “Ball!” barks probably have been “[shaped] during previous interactions with the owner,” and can vary between individuals, suggest the researchers.
But balls are not for every dog. In fact, some dogs could not participate in the above studies because they turned up their nose at balls. The inferential reasoning study rejected three dogs “because they lost interest in finding and retrieving the ball.” And while Buddy, below, is sure into balls, the black dog in the background isn’t exactly on the same page.
It's the start of Major League Baseball season, and many (but not all) humans have eagerly awaited balls flying through the air. But balls are not for every dog, or every human, so I wonder: where does your dog come down on balls?
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Müller, C. A., Mayer, C., Dörrenberg, S., Huber, L., & Range, F. (2011). Female but not male dogs respond to a size constancy violation. Biology Letters, rsbl20110287.
Pilley, J. W., & Reid, A. K. (2011). Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents. Behavioural Processes, 86(2), 184–195.
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