Saturday May 25, 2019
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Teaching animal pets to read: too much evolution?

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pets

By Nury Vittachi

New Delhi: Who thought pets could read? No one. But this dog has learned to read. Fernie, a two-year-old labrador from the UK, can read four words and is working on another 20, says his owner, a teacher.

I was impressed, as I well remember the difficulty I once had trying to teach a two-year-old human not to throw herself off a balcony.

All parents know that children get furiously angry if we stop them doing things like climbing into lion enclosures, drinking poison, eating mystery brown objects off the forest floor and the like. The basic toddler philosophy is: “I wonder what (insert lethal activity here) feels like? Let’s find out.”

(I suspect there’s also a subconscious undercurrent of “Time for a quick round of Make Dad Panic.”)

Parenting books say “they grow out of it”. They don’t say that they grow right back into it as teenagers, who have the exact same philosophy, but with more expensive dangers. (“I wonder what would happen if we mixed every chemical in the school lab?”)

The obvious solution is to teach children the way we teach dogs. “Sit.” (Child sits.) “Who’s a good boy?” (Adult pats head and presents tiny morsel of food.) “Study! Pass exams! (Child studies and passes exams.) “Who’s a good boy?” (Adult pats head and presents another tiny morsel of food.) and so on and so forth.

What if your child can’t talk yet? You can still teach it, thanks to scientists in Taiwan who have just invented an Infant Cries Translator app. You download the app and stick your phone near your baby’s mouth. Wah wah waahhhhh is translated on the screen into clear, adult-readable terms such as: “I wish to have an additional beverage, carer.”

This reminded me of my first daughter, who had advanced verbal skills and actually spoke like that from about 18 months old: “Convey me to the potty immediately, carer, or you and your so-called Persian rug will live to regret it.”

Happy memories. But I was brought back on topic by a colleague from the US who says TV shows in her home country feature a dog called Willow who can read. Clearly this is the trend.

I’m sorry, but I’m not convinced that teaching animals to read is a good thing. Life is grim enough without coming home to be greeted by my dog saying things like: “What do you think of Schopenhauer’s second volume of essays? Good grief, you haven’t read it, have you?”

The fact is reading gives humans an evolutionary advantage that we should not share with less-evolved creatures such as dogs, cats, amoeba, Donald Trump fans and the like.

But I must admit I was curious. So I handed my newspaper to my dog. She stared at the front page picture (a politician of course) and then tilted her head to one side, apparently having the same gyroscopic thing in her brain that smartphones have. Then she took a step forwards and peed on it. That was probably a rather insightful thing to do. I wish I’d thought of it.

If dogs do learn to read, let’s limit them to books about their kind: White Fang, 101 Dalmatians, and Marley and Me are probably the three most famous. Do NOT give them Cujo. (IANS)

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Dogs can Sniff out Cancer in Blood with 97% Accuracy, Says Study

The results will be presented at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting in Florida

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doctors, blood cancer
Dogs have smell receptors 10,000 times more accurate than humans', making them highly sensitive to odours we can not perceive. Pixabay

Your canine friend, dog uses its highly evolved sense of smell to pick out blood samples from people with cancer with almost 97 per cent accuracy, a finding that can lead to new low-cost and non-invasive screening approaches for the disease, finds a study.

Dogs have smell receptors 10,000 times more accurate than humans’, making them highly sensitive to odours we can not perceive.

“Although there is no cure for cancer, early detection offers the best hope,” said lead researcher Heather Junqueira, at BioScentDx, a US-based healthcare company. “A highly sensitive test for detecting cancer could save thousands of lives and change the way the disease is treated,” he said.

For the study, the team used a form of clicker training to teach four beagles to distinguish between normal blood serum and samples from patients with malignant lung cancer.

The results showed that the pups' attractiveness was lowest at birth and increased to a maximum before 10 weeks of age before declining and then levelling off.
Representational Image. pixabay

Although one beagle — aptly named Snuggles — was unmotivated to perform, the other three correctly identified lung cancer samples 96.7 per cent times and normal samples 97.5 per cent times.

“This work is very exciting because it paves the way for further research along two paths, both of which could lead to new cancer-detection tools,” said Junqueira.

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“One is using canine scent detection as a screening method for cancers, and the other would be to determine the biologic compounds the dogs detect and then design cancer-screening tests based on those compounds,” he said.

The results will be presented at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting in Florida. The team plans to use canine scent detection to develop a non-invasive way of screening for cancer and other life-threatening diseases. (IANS)