the mathematical dog (1/10)

Returning to Five is the light-hearted documentary series that profiles a range of remarkable animals from across the globe. The first instalment focuses on Maggie, a seven-year-old Jack Russell who can count. This cunning canine can apparently solve simple mathematical challenges by tapping out the answer with her paw. But is Maggie a genuine animal genius or is she responding to subtle cues from her owner?

Sprightly Jack Russell Maggie has lived with her owner, Jesse, since she was a puppy. She can dance and she can sing, to a degree, but she has also developed a skill that could change the way people think about their four-legged friends. This canny canine can solve mathematical problems.

As soon as Jesse took Maggie home, the two struck up a unique relationship. The proud owner began training the puppy to perform all kinds of tricks and soon realised that Maggie was a very clever animal. “I knew she was special right away,” says Jesse. “She would learn pretty difficult behaviours in minutes.” At three months old, the dog would fetch Jesse a tissue whenever she sneezed, and not long after, she learned how to mimic speech by opening and closing her mouth at her mistress’s command.

However, Maggie’s most incredible skill revealed itself at the age of six months. Jesse held up her hand and Maggie used her paw to tap out the number of digits she saw. “I fell off my chair,” recalls Jesse. “It was truly bizarre.” Before long, Maggie was capable of simple addition and subtraction sums, and later of multiplication and division.

But is it really possible for an animal to solve mathematical problems? Even Jesse admits the concept is bizarre. “It really takes seeing her doing it to kind of become a believer. Even then, it’s tough,” she admits. Animal behaviourist Robert DeFranco, of the American College of Applied Science, is convinced that canines cannot count, and has travelled to Maggie’s home town in Florida to investigate. “If it’s possible that this particular Jack Russell terrier has evolved to the point that it can do math,” he says, doubtfully, “well, that would be quite interesting.”

DeFranco sets about assessing Maggie using a series of tests devised by a scientist in Edinburgh to gauge canine intelligence. These include tests in spatial awareness and ‘object persistence’, in which an object is hidden from sight. Does the dog think the object has ceased to exist just because it cannot be seen? Maggie passes these trials with flying colours, along with other tests of memory and problem-solving. Maggie has demonstrated that she is at the top end of the doggie IQ scale, but how will she fare in her biggest challenge yet – a maths competition against a class of seven-year-olds?

These children have already spent three years studying maths, yet Maggie was able to perform basic calculations at only six months. Can she really be more advanced than these kids? In the event, Maggie loses the contest in a tense tiebreak situation. Nevertheless, she has garnered a respectable score and won the admiration of the class. “That dog was awesome!” says one child.

Robert DeFranco, however, remains convinced that Maggie’s counting is a trick that relies on subtle cues from Jesse. To get to the bottom of the matter, he minimises Jesse’s control over the dog by first drowning out any audible cues with white noise, and then asking her to hide her hands under the table and shield her eyes with a pair of sunglasses. Remarkably, Maggie continues to deliver the correct answers. It is only when Jesse leaves the room that the clever little terrier goes awry. It seems possible Jesse is exercising more power over her dog than she realises; however, the final verdict on Maggie’s skills lies several thousand miles away, at the Clever Dog Lab in Vienna. What will the specialists there make of Maggie’s abilities?

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