Whilst successful, they were all essentially prototypes for the next generation of bomb dog. “After we do all this science, we’re going to rewrite the protocols,” says Lisa Albuquerque, an energetic Navy official who heads the programme, known formally as the IED Detector Dog. “It’s basically an upgrade to an existing model.”
Her starting point was talking to the Marines who would ultimately use the dogs. She recalls asking a staff sergeant: "Do you want a dog that bites," to which he replied: "I have 13 heavily armed Marines, why do I need a dog that bites?" What they wanted, it turned out was a good-natured dog, hence the Labradors. From there, she began an extensive array of experiments with researchers at North Carolina State University, Duke University, and Oklahoma State, to develop the training and selection criteria that will make them the perfect IED detector.
Talking about dogs as a technology, like a rifle or a pair of binoculars, is part of what makes the Navy programme unique. “I think that a real key point is that the science and technology that the [Department of Defense] has funded [in the past] has never been about trying to optimise the dog,” says Albuquerque, who spent 25 years as a military dog trainer. “It’s all been about trying to make a sensor that’s as good as a dog, and so our approach, which is really very unique, is saying, ‘Wait a minute, for the near term, dogs are still going to be the best sensor.’”
But smell is just one part of the Navy’s dog programme – a large part of the effort is animal cognition. Brian Hare, who heads Duke University’s Canine Cognition Centre, is interested in animals’ inferential abilities, or the ability to reason and problem solve. Until recently, it was something that scientists thought was impossible.
Hare demonstrates his work with a video, showing Yaya, a great ape in Uganda, who is presented with a mental puzzle: a long plastic tube that is latched down and can’t be moved. “At the bottom is the equivalent of a Peabody award,” says Hare. “It’s three peanuts.”
The question is how would Yaya get the peanuts (and could I come up with a solution before she does)? In less than 10 seconds, before I could even venture an answer, Yaya has already solved the problem. She goes to her water dish, sucks some water into her mouth, and then spits the water into the tube, allowing the peanuts to float to the top. Pretty much all of the female apes, like Yaya, solved the nut problem the same way, according to Hare. “There’s also a male solution to this problem,” he adds. “Many of the male chimpanzees just peed in the tube.”
Hare has extended these cognition tests to dogs. In one test, for example, Border Collies were shown several objects they know by name, such as tennis balls and Frisbees. The dogs then were told to fetch the “gazzer”, a made up word for a toy car, the one object whose name they don’t know. The dogs consistently fetched the toy car, which Hare attributes to the dogs reasoning that the “gazzer” must be the one object they didn’t know: an example of inferential reasoning. “It’s even scarier than that because there’s evidence that dogs, after only two pairings of hearing the word out loud – no food rewards, no training, no nothing – remember the words for as long as four months,” says Hare. “That’s on the order of what human children do.”