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Bone scholars: IWU research unleashes computer-savvy dogs

Bone scholars: IWU research unleashes computer-savvy dogs

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BLOOMINGTON — In a research lab at Illinois Wesleyan University, Cleo nose — er, knows — the score.

One moist touch of this side of the computer screen with her snout, and the 10-year-old Australian Shepherd mix will ring the bell that awards her with some delish chicken-and-lamb jerky treats.

If her nose presses the other side, she gets rewarded, too, but with a rude buzzer sound, and a lesser treat … kibbles, ho-hum.

To earn a tossed bone, as it were, a dog does what a dog has to do.

Sometimes colored shapes are the computer screen's cues for guiding where her nose goes. Sometimes colors provide the cues (easy on the reds and greens, which are the color-blind weaknesses of man's best friend).

Whether the cues are shape- or color-based, high-octane Cleo's interest never flags, her moist nose swabbing the screen with a confident swagger befitting her Computer Rock Star nickname.

Because Cleo was fed only half her regular breakfast portion today, she's not being too persnickety now as lunch-time approaches: upbeat ring-tone or rude buzzer, she gets fed. And her moist, ever-alert nose gets a workout at the computer.

Cleo's owner, Ellen Furlong, describes her as “a loud woman” with a “high need for cognition and stimulation.”

Which might explain why, at age 10 (70 in human years), Cleo looks half as old and recently ran a marathon with her owner.

She's also a bone-afide brainiac, especially when it comes to Furlong's research into animal cognition and enrichment techniques at Illinois Wesleyan University. In the Comparative Cognition Lab of IWU's Center for Natural Sciences, Furlong, an assistant professor of psychology, is working with her student researchers, Brenden Wall and Jeff Toraason, in developing computer games.

But not for us.

These games, when the apps are finally developed, will be designed to help alleviate the boredom, stasis and isolation plaguing pets left home alone all day by their 9-to-5 masters, or consigned to shelters.

Though her research began with primates — from the decision-making ways of humans and, later, simians — it has currently gone to the dogs.

Chiefly: Cleo, her boyfriend's 7-year-old Lab mix Charlie and around 40 volunteers from Bloomington's Paradise Pet Hotel & Say Spa, 407 Olympia Drive.

Charlie, who has joined Cleo in the lab this day, "is more laid back and happy to just snooze ... he's also a comparative novice, having just started learning in January."

When the computer screen lights up with a yellow box, Charlie hesitates before putting his nose where his appetite is. 

Standing behind the screen is student assistant Wall, a senior psychology major.

With each snout-touch, the yellow box shrinks by 25 percent in size, and there's the rub: the coveted treat is dependent on touching the square, even as its size shrinks.

Charlie isn't quite there yet ... but give him time, says Furlong.

Wall gives him a treat anyway. 

Cleo, meanwhile, is the lab research pro, having worked at computers for 1½ years.

"In our labs, we are asking about social cognition decision-making, using choice paths between the two outcomes," says Furlong, who joined the IWU faculty a year ago.

Furlong and her researchers are working toward practical application of their findings via computer games for mobile devices like iPads.

Future research could mean customizing apps to allow for cognitive distinctions between various breeds.

Having spent considerable time testing the decision-making skills of monkeys off the coast of Puerto Rico, Furlong is impressed by the cognitive powers and prowess of her canine subjects.

"They display pretty significant learning abilities, and they outshine many other species in terms of social skills ... they understand really complex social things primates don't," says Furlong.

"They are incredibly sophisticated ... socially savvy ... really good at math ... and overall just very intelligent. And, unlike working chimpanzees, we aren't at risk of losing a finger as we learn these things."

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Illinois Wesleyan University assistant professor Ellen Furlong is working to develop an app to keep your dog happy as she studies how animals learn.

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