Q: I recently adopted Sophie, a 1-year-old standard poodle, who has an endearing trait. Sometimes she tilts her head when I’m talking, as though she’s trying to understand everything I’m saying. None of my other dogs did this. Why does she?
A: In a recent study, researchers concluded that especially smart dogs more often tilt their heads than other dogs, and they do it while concentrating on what their owners are asking them to do.
In the study, researchers observed 40 toy-motivated family dogs trying to learn the names of two toys and retrieve them—by name—from another room.
Only six dogs were able to learn the toys’ names and consistently bring them to family members. These dogs were labeled “gifted word learner,” or GWL, dogs, while the nonlearners were called “typical” dogs.
The GWL dogs then learned the names of many more toys and were asked to retrieve those toys by name from another room and deliver them to family members.
The researchers studied the dogs through multiple tests and found that while typical dogs tilted their heads only 2 percent of the time, GWL dogs exhibited a head tilt 43 percent of the time. Even when they didn’t tilt their heads, the GWL dogs retrieved the correct toys.
In all cases, the head tilt occurred while the dog was facing the family member asking the dog to retrieve a particular toy.
A given dog always or almost always tilted his or her head in the same direction each time. This parallels earlier studies showing that dogs consistently use either the right or left front paw for tasks, just as humans are either right- or left-handed.
The researchers concluded that gifted dogs often tilt their heads as they listen to family members, so Sophie may be especially smart.
If that’s the case, I recommend you regularly engage her brain by teaching her the names of family members and toys. In addition, introduce her to mentally stimulating activities such as high-level obedience exercises, agility training, and nose work. You’ll enrich Sophie’s life and earn bragging points for yourself.
Q: Cats’ tongues feel like they are covered with sandpaper, but dogs’ tongues are smooth. Why do cats have such rough tongues?
A: The rough surface of the cat’s tongue facilitates grooming, as the spiny projections, called papillae, swivel to detangle and remove knots. In contrast, dogs rarely groom themselves.
Cats’ papillae also aid in drinking and eating, especially licking every last bit of meat from the bones of their prey.
Each type of papilla (pa-PILL’-ah) has a specific shape and function. Most are shaped like spines curved backward toward the throat. These papillae form a V, with the point of the V at the back of the tongue near the entrance to the throat.
Curved papillae remove meat from bones and grab loose hair and debris during grooming. Because they face backward into the V-shaped trough, whatever is caught in the papillae gets swallowed.
The problem with this design is that it’s nearly impossible for a cat to spit out a nonfood item like a string. Once the cat swallows it, it usually needs to be removed surgically.
Inventors are emulating the feline tongue and its papillae as they design hairbrushes, vacuum cleaners, wound-cleaning devices, and robotics equipment.