Is Your Dog a Strategic Thinker?

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We frequently play a simple game with Jack and Maggie we call ‘find the food’. It’s pretty basic, we just hide little Zuke treats around the front yard – on the car bumper, the watering can, on top of the rocks in the flower beds, on the porch railing, etc. We hide probably 20-30 treats around and then let Jack & Maggie out of the house to find them.
They each have a totally different strategy for playing the game. Maggie’s approach is to run around grabbing all the low hanging fruit or the treats that are the easiest to find. Jack is methodical and thorough. He comes out the door makes a right and scours the patio before moving out to the front porch and then the yard. Maggie probably does a circuit around the yard 3 or 4 times, but Jack does just one – once he’s cleared an area, it’s clear, he rarely leaves one behind.
I’ve tried to capture it in this video.

It got me thinking about why they would have such different strategies and what strategies our other dogs have employed for playtime or walks or other activities.
Sally was probably our most playful dog and she had a couple of strategies to get us to play with her. If we were sitting down watching TV or working or reading, she would grab a toy and come up next to us and nudge us with the toy. She’d continue doing that until we got up and played a little fetch with her. When she wanted a snack, she would come sit in front of you and whine like she hadn’t been fed in weeks. As soon as you got up – she would beeline for the kitchen for the cookie jar. Her other strategy for a game of fetch was to grab her ball and toss it to us – she’d drop it and take a few steps back as she watched the ball roll towards us. If we didn’t pick it up and play, she would just repeat her little dance until we did.
Tino’s strategic thinking typically revolved around critter capture. He was a superb hunter with the patience of Job. He could sit or stand over a gopher hole for what seemed like hours, waiting for a sound and then he would pounce and dig. I’ve written before about his ability for catching rabbits – even after he had gone blind. Pretty amazing.
I turned to the internet to see what’s been written about dog’s strategic thinking skills but didn’t find too much. There is of course, the Dognition group and the work they are doing – Jack took the Dognition test last year. There is also the Canine Cognition Center at Yale that is doing lots of different types of research into how dogs think.
The Today Show had an interesting segment on Yale’s work last fall, check it out.
Forbes Magazine provided a list of five different types of strategic thinking for humans:

  1. Critical thinking is the mental process of objectively analyzing a situation by gathering information from all possible sources, and then evaluating both the tangible and intangible aspects, as well as the implications of any course of action.
  2. Implementation thinking is the ability to organize ideas and plans in a way that they will be effectively carried out.
  3. Conceptual thinking consists of the ability to find connections or patterns between abstract ideas and then piece them together to form a complete picture.
  4. Innovative thinking involves generating new ideas or new ways of approaching things to create possibilities and opportunities.
  5. Intuitive thinking is the ability to take what you may sense or perceive to be true and, without knowledge or evidence, appropriately factor it in to the final decision.

Maggie is definitely a Critical Thinker – she scampers all over the yard, marking where she found and/or smells a treat and then gathers them as quickly as she can. Jack is more Intuitive Thinker – he assumes there are treats everywhere in the yard and scours every nook and cranny for the answer.

I think there’s lots more to be researched and discovered, meanwhile, I’ll learn what I can from Jack & Maggie. How about your dog – what type of strategic thinker is he?


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  1. I would have to say Harley is like Maggie, more critical. Jax I’m just not sure of yet. You’ve given me something to think about, and I’d like to try your treat game and watch. I’ll let you know.

  2. So fascinating to see their different approaches. I think dogs often get grouped into a single category, but it’s clear they too have very distinctive personalities and problem-solving methods.

  3. So cool! I’m not sure what kind of thinker my huskies are, but I have witnessed some pretty strategic planning going on with them! haha
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  4. Misty the alpha Poodle can do inductive and deductive thinking. She is downright scary.
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  5. I’m an implementer. I always have a plan and I pretty much stick to it no matter what. Bailie is totally different and follows any whim which blows in her direction!
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  6. That was a great video, fun to watch, I still haven’t decided which one Gambler is: all of the above?
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  7. Hmmmm…i’m not sure…
    Ziva is very strategic, i’d say she’s more intuitive. Dante though..he doesn’t try very hard and has a low frusteration tolerance so we have to be careful when we train him or he mentally just quits. LoL
    Jack is super smart, he’s maybe conceptual – he tries new ways to get treats or toys and training through shaping works great for him! He comes up with his own patterns to figure out what we want. 🙂
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  8. The video was so interesting, watching both of their strategies. Haley is definitely more like Maggie. I’m curious about whether there could be any trends on how males and females use different strategies or whether it’s purely an individual personality type thing. I’m glad Jack won the battle of “Jack vs. The Watering Can”, lol!
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  9. That is so interesting! I think Sherman is more a conceptual thinker and Leroy doesn’t fit into a category because he’s not a thinker at all! 😉

  10. This video is awesome! You’ve put a great deal of effort into it and it’s well worth it. I love watching where they go first; that can say a lot about their strategy. My Mila is an intuitive thinker, for sure. As soon as she hears a wrapper of any sort she comes right by feet to clean up any scraps. Great post, SlimDoggy! We enjoy reading your articles!
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