How Relevant is a Car Ashtray to your Dog?

You have my attention!

You may think that subtleties are lost on an animal that uses blatant tactics like stare, drool, bark, and whine to request what it wants out of life. You may think it, but you’d be wrong.

If I were asked to come up with a new name for dogs— one that would be more reflective of our current infatuation with technology, I would rename them relevance engines.

Like the Merovingian from The Matrix, dogs are keen observers of cause and effect, action and reaction. They are always scanning their environment looking for clues as to what will happen next. Mundane acts to us, speak volumes to them.

In a recent Facebook update, I quipped that my dogs were trying to convince me that the dollar menu at fast food restaurants was invented solely for them. I was prompted to make this comment after a recent visit to a bank drive through with my Aussie, Gavin, in the car with me.

Being an Aussie, Gavin loves the sound of his own voice and sees people in the proximity of the car as a fine occasion to use it. However, at some point in time he stopped barking at drive through windows and adopted other tactics instead. He began to make sure that he was visible to the person in the window and employed either a happy grin or the stare and drool in order to get his point across.

On this particular drive through visit we were at a bank which, unfortunately for Gavin, didn’t have an inexhaustible supply of dog biscuits at the window. As we drove away I was chuckling at the look of utter disbelief on his face. You could see the “WTF?” moving across the Twitter stream in his mind.

This made me wonder about all the events both inside and outside the car that clue Gavin into the possibility of food coming and here’s some of what I came up with.

  • The fact that he’s in the car to begin with
  • The smell of food as we drive through town
  • Checking the ashtray for change
  • Leaning forward to get my wallet out of my pocket
  • A drive through window
  • A drive through speaker
  • People in the car asking one another “Are you hungry?”

Many of these environmental cues are given in the presence of other cues so I’ve decided to try a little experiment and remove them from their normal environment to see what kind of reaction I get.

For instance I’ve already checked Gavin for any kind of response when I rummage through the ashtray for change before we’ve even left the driveway of my house. As you might expect he became very alert and interested when I did this. My next step is to wait a few weeks and then bring the ashtray inside the house and then see what his reaction to it will be.

I’ve also tried pulling my wallet out in the house when Gavin was looking at me and this generated some interest as well. However, it’s not as compelling as the change rattle because it’s harder to determine if his interest is quizzical or anticipatory.

So what do you think— will Gavin still show as much interest in the change rattle outside the car as he did inside it? Has the “change rattle” evolved into a conditioned reinforcer of sorts and does it have relevance both places?

I’d love to hear stories about your own little relevance engines and the subtle clues they’ve identified over the years.

Stay tuned for more mad science to come.

Kevin, Jackie, & the relevances engines Gavin, Annie, Tosha, and Elbee at Dog Lover’s Digest


6 thoughts on “How Relevant is a Car Ashtray to your Dog?

  1. I sometimes think my dog knows I am leaving the house an hour before I do…really, I think she knows I am going out before I have even decided to go. I think there are SO many of these little cues that she picks up on in a day that I’m not even sure I could pin-point them all. Of course, she has moderate separation anxiety and follows me from room to room (shadow dog) so she doesn’t miss much in my daily routine.

  2. Kevin, I just love reading your articles!

    I totally agree that dogs observe everything. I think that Gavin MIGHT show some interest in the rattling change, probably not as much excitement, more likely curious interest: “Could it be?”

    I think it would be the same as with a person, if something is taken out of context.

    Jasmine is very observant, but different cues have different meaning under different circumstances – because she observed that one thing doesn’t always mean the same and that it DEPENDS.

  3. My three dogs know my daily routine EXACTLY. As soon as they hear the computer’s “turn off” sound (trigger), they KNOW I’m going to get ready to take them for their walk, and start walking around eagerly waiting for me to get ‘ready’, which is followed by the ‘reinforcement’ of me getting dressed in my “walking clothes” (which I’m POSITIVE they can tell from my “regular” clothes), at which point their “frenzy”/anticipation accelerates, until they’re waiting at the door for me to put their leahses on. They SO know their “clues”, in this example as well as several other daily “events”.

  4. We are such creatures of routine:
    1. Sound of the lid snapping on my travel mug in the morning means I am leaving for work soon. He will come running from the other room to supervise my departure.
    2. The sound of the TV turning off causes him to leap up from resting since it means the bedtime outing will soon follow.
    3. The 4 tones when the computer shuts down has a similar result to #2.
    4. If I put the leash and fanny-pack by my purse instead of re-hanging them by the front door he knows a car ride will be occurring.

  5. The jingle of the keys is what does it for my boys – they know we’re about to go somewhere and they’re excited to hit the road. You’d think the novelty would have worn off after nearly 25,000 miles – but it hasn’t yet!

    • Amy my in laws had a Winnie until recently. Every time they would get ready to leave somewhere they had been camping, their Golden, Justin, would run and jump up in the drivers seat and did not want to budge. He figured that seat would be the best vantage point for the trip. 🙂

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