The incredible calculating canine!

It's hard to believe that a dog can understand four languages, discuss the intricacies of Christian theology, and perform complex mathematical operations, including calculus and algebra, but it's even harder to believe that the editors of an until-now reputable newspaper would be so hard up for local news that they'd be able to find space for 1,500 words on the subject. But the Asheville Citizen-Times did just that. On the front page. I can't remember when they gave 1,500 words to anything.

Never mind that the video accompanying the story gives away the trick -- the dog's clearly following the owner's lead. Never mind that there are any number of serious news stories going unreported in western North Carolina. Oh no. A dog that knows how many entities constitute the godhead -- now that's news.

The story, by award-winning columnist Susan Reinhardt, describes how Cindy Tuten, a physician no less, and her husband, Stan, have trained their Micah, "a terrier mix with penetrating eyes like black molasses," to tap its paws on their palms in answer to a wide variety of questions:

If a=2, and b=3, what is axb-1?

"Micah?" said Dr. Cindy Tuten, a physician and Stan Tuten's wife. "Do you understand the problem?"

She held one hand high in the air with a bowl of cut tomatoes and cooked chicken (the dog's reward) and the other out for the dog's answer. Micah tapped his paw once.

"Once means 'yes' and twice means 'no' " she said. "So he's telling us he understands the problem. Micah, what is the solution to the problem?"

The dog stared at the food, then tapped Tuten's palm five times.

"Very good, Micah," she said and fed him a treat.

Her husband decided to ask their 4-year-old dog another question, the square root of 25. Micah tapped his paw five times.

But it gets better.

"How many persons are in the God head?" Cindy Tuten asked.

Micah tapped three times.

"How many God's (sic) are there?" The dog tapped once.

Plus, claim the Tutens, Micah understand questions in English, Spanish, French and German. And there seems to be no end to what it knows -- hampered only by the binary nature of its only method of answering questions. The Tutens, however, aren't stupid. They know people would be skeptical.

Both professionals, they knew coming forward with this story would be dicey.

"I believe the Bible is true and it tells us how God used ravens to feed Elijah, a whale to save Jonah and a donkey to speak to Balaam," Stan Tuten said. "Now that I see how God is using Micah, I'm all the more convinced he can use any creature to accomplish his purpose."

To the Citizen-Times' credit, it does quote a couple of genuine skeptics. But it hardly needed Dr. Josh Van Szalatnay of the Animal Hospital South to suggest that the Tutens are tipping off Micha with "some sort of facial clue or inflection of the voice." All that's needed is a glance at the video segment that accompany the story. In one, Cindy Tuten asks about that godhead question -- the one that so bedeviled early Christian theologians and essentially tore the Church apart and helped kill reason for 900 odd years -- and she gives Micah the answer by holding up one, then two, then three fingers. Micah obediently taps three times.

Sheesh. OK. So Micah's a smart doggie. But divinely inspired? I don't think so. Just one more excerpt from the story should suffice:

Micah, though a caring animal, is not a typical dog. He doesn't greet guests with a wagging tail or a case of excitable wiggles. He's much more serious, pacing then sitting and staring for what seems like hours.... Cindy Tuten said the stare means Micah has a message. If he emits a low growl, he is "scolding" the visitor, letting the person know he or she isn't living as Christians should.

That any paper, let alone with with as good a record as the Citizen-Times, should waste paper on such drivel is depressing. The good news is the story has unleashed a torrent of vitriol in the online comments forum, including this little gem: "We need to find out who is mixing the koolaid for these people...."

The answer, of course, is all too clear.

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This year would be the 100th anniverary of the 1907 demonstration by Oskar Pfungst that the horse 'der kluge Hans' ('Clever Hans') did not understand several languages nor was doing mathematics but was simply responding to cues from his owner, Mr. von Osten, a high school math teacher, amateur horse trainer, phrenologist, and mystic.

First line, second paragraph:
"...the dog's owner is clearly following the owner's lead."

Come again?

By Robert J Harper (not verified) on 23 Jun 2007 #permalink

Ah, yet another example of the "Clever Hans" effect. Clever Hans was a German horse who wowed audiences with his counting skills. However, when you took people away and allowed him only to hear commands from a speaker, he could not perform.

Our pets are extremely good at picking up subtle cues: patterns in your breathing, twiddling your fingers, clenching your fists, holding your breath, looking in one direction, clenching your jaw, fidgeting your toes, etc. etc. etc.

All Clever Hans did was tap his foot until he sensed he was supposed to stop, and get a treat. I don't think this dog is any different. He's picking up on his owner's hatred of people around them, just like any dog that's attacked only black people, or people who wear overalls, or something like that because of the way an owner reacts.

Sigh. It's so simple: ask them to ask the dog a question they don't know the answer to.

And as for that "vetting the visitors" crap, not every dog is a tail-wagging indiscriminate people-lover. But hey - let's introduce him to the Pope!

If the dog is so smart, lets see it calculate the square root of 2.

Question: How do the religious justify their belief that humans are above animals because we have souls and are made in God's image yet believe that a dog would be interested in the trinity and other biblical babblings? Seriously, isn't that a little sick to teach your dog to follow a God that doesn't care about him?

Hmmm... My dog is special, too. He is a German shepherd and he is able to communicate, listen and provide solutions to some problems. Sample problems include: What does 24 minus 24 equal? He says nothing. I have asked him what is zero times 5? He says nothing.

Once I saw that he was sitting on the sidewalk. My son asked the dog how the surface felt. The dog answered rough. At that point I asked the dog if he knew the opposite of the word "smooth". Once again he said rough. My son then asked our dog what the opposite of the word easy and the dog also replied rough.

We were truly amazed. Later on we thought we would determine if he could understand anagrams. We touched his hair and asked him what this pelt was. He answered "ruf". I don't need to tell anyone this , but ruf is an anagram of fur. Wow!

Finally, I was playing chess and I showed him a chess piece. I told him this piece is allowed to move along files and rows. Then he said "roof" which we all interpreted as "rook".

My shepherd is also a big football fan. I asked him "Who is the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers?" He looked puzzled. I helped him along and said "Brett F-" and immediately he said "arf". Brett Favre! We were stunned.

I could go on and on about special accomplishments such as understanding words like sit, heel, down, walk and others; yet, that would probably lead to an unfortunately situation where some psycho would attempt to kidnap our pet and try to sell him to some sideshow. I shudder as I imagine the possibilities...

Animal communication should not be taken lightly. There are very special cases like Mr. Ed, Fritz the cat, Frances the talking mule and the cats in the old "Meow Mix" catfood commercial. We need to listen and take heed.