Santiago’s Brain–And what it has to do with Dogs

A recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine contained a fascinating article called “Santiago’s Brain.” Santiago Gonzalez moved with his parents from Mexico City to Colorado soon after his first birthday. By the age of eighteen months, he knew the alphabet. At two, he could count to 20 in three languages. At the Montessori school where his parents enrolled him, he learned English in about a month. (Anyone else feel like a slacker yet?) His hyper-fast learning curve continued, and Santiago entered college at 11. At 13, he has advanced computer programming solutions drifting through his mind as he sleeps, and easily discusses things like “molecular orbital theory.” Clearly, Santiago is what is termed “exceptionally gifted.” But that’s only part of the story; the more troubling aspect is the boy’s emotional life. Early on, he’d been placed in age-appropriate classes at school. By the end of his first week of first grade, he had became a loner in class and volatile at home, and sometimes acted mean, which was totally out of character for him. He soon became very easily frustrated and completely unbalanced emotionally. But when his parents took him to museums, bookstores, and libraries on the weekends, his moods lightened. When Santiago was eventually put into an environment where his mind could be engaged and challenged, although his classmates were much older, he thrived. In other words, mental stimulation was key to Santiago’s emotional stability.

Naturally, this story made me think about dogs. We often stress the importance of exercise, but I seldom come across conversations about how much mental stimulation is required for a dog’s well being. I can’t help but think about all of those border collies and other highly mentally focused breeds that are in the care of owners who don’t understand this aspect of their needs. Perhaps, just like Santiago, those dogs require a higher level of mental stimulation than others in order to remain well-adjusted emotionally. We do know that many highly intelligent dogs who don’t get enough mental stimulation invent activities for themselves, channeling that intense focus into projects their humans just don’t seem to appreciate.

Highly intellectual dogs need more than simply excavating a Kong or running through basic obedience routines. So how can we challenge them? One thing that comes to mind immediately is clicker training. What could be better for a super-smart dog than having to figure things out? Once a dog is clicker-savvy (click equals treat), the game is on! It’s all about figuring out how to make that human click, and it’s great fun for both parties. Although Mojo (my soul dog who has passed on) wasn’t what I would call mentally advanced, he loved learning new tricks with the clicker. Two of his favorites were “Say your prayers” and “Turn out the light.”

Another neat mental activity is to let dogs figure out how to get treats out of a complex treat dispenser. For dogs who haven’t done it before, the Aikiou (pronounced “IQ”) is a good product to start with: it’s a large plastic paw with four sliders that can each be pushed to reveal a treat, and a round disk in the center that must be nudged or pawed to reveal pockets of treats all around the circle. For more experienced or highly intelligent dogs, the Nina Ottoson toys are an excellent choice. They’re more advanced, and require dogs to figure out, for example, how to spin multiple levels of disks to line up the openings to reveal a treat. There’s one where a dog has to figure out to remove a large wooden peg in order to allow a slider to move, which in turn reveals the treat. There are varying degrees of difficulty, and plenty of puzzle toys to choose from. Of course, there are many other activities that also stimulate dogs mentally, including sports such as agility, K9 Nosework, and herding. We just need to match the sport to the dog’s abilities and discover what he enjoys.

According to the Santiago article, because intellectually advanced children are often ostracized, they try to act like everyone else by burying or switching off that highly advanced part of themselves. Researchers worry that “intellectual motivation, after prolonged decimation…becomes irrecoverable.” I hate to think that a dog with intellectual drive, who is motivated by learning, could end up languishing without proper mental stimulation, possibly even becoming depressed, or having his lack of needs being met manifest as behavioral issues. Santiago’s story is a good reminder to all of us to take the time to challenge our dogs not only physically, but mentally. There’s an old saying that a tired dog is a good dog, but I’d venture to say a dog who has been mentally stimulated is a great dog, and a happy, better behaved one at that.

10 Responses to Santiago’s Brain–And what it has to do with Dogs

  1. Marni Fowler says:

    Wow! Thanks Nicole. What a great story. I totally agree. I think many of the behavior problems dog (and children) have can be traced back to lack of mental stimulation. People always tell me they want a smart dog. I laugh and think to myself, no you don’t! They are so much more work! They are the ones who figure out how to open doors and crates, how to get up on the counters and over baby gates, etc. (Speaking from experience!)

  2. J says:

    I’m a little skeptic about the nina ottoson toys. You buy them and for a while the dog has something to think about. When the dog has played with the toy often enough so he knows how to get treats, it won’t be mentally challenging for him anymore, so you might as well put the toy away. No point in buying them in my opinion.

    • wildewmn says:

      I agree that whether a toy is a Nina O. toy or another type, if you give it to the dog every day, it would lose its novelty and possibly become boring, especially for a smart dog. I rotate toys and activities so that doesn’t happen. I should have mentioned in the blog that dogs should not be left unsupervised with those toys, both because they might destroy them and also because they become less valuable if always available.
      Take care,

  3. […] Wilde About Dogs This entry was posted in Articles and tagged Brain–And, Dogs, Santiago’s. Bookmark the permalink. ← Capturing your DOG’s Attention […]

  4. Agree that dogs need mental stimulation. Especially true in shelters, where kennel stress can run high.

    I teach a class in clicker methods to the volunteer dog walkers at the MSPCA, in Boston MA. One training goal is to reduce kennel stress with mental stimulation. Shelter staff tell me that as the use of clickers goes up, barking among the dogs available for adoption goes down.

    It goes further. As the dogs begin to learn that clicker work is fun and rewarding, many of the dogs calm themselves just being around other dogs who are enjoying through-the-bars clicker interactions with volunteers.

    My experience has been that the volunteers are quite hungry to learn behavioral principals and clicker methods. As more volunteers hone their mark-and-reward skills, both the dogs and the two-legs benefit.

    I don’t think it takes the volunteer coordinator a lot of effort to create a training schedule and promote it to the volunteers. Wouldn’t it be cool if other shelters swiped the idea for their own?

  5. Well put Nicole. I have a VERY intelligent Chessie. He surprised me last year by inventing a new game based on an older game. The old game was a common game played with dogs; leave the dog on a stay in one room and hide a toy in a different room and send the dog to hunt while you pack or get ready for bed or do the dishes. About a year ago, in Cleveland at a friend’s house, I was in my room and he came to me with a toy. Not unusual in and of itself. He sat at heel and made eye contact. Again, not unusual for this dog. And then he did something different. He bolted away when I reached for the toy and he came back without the toy. He sat in heel position again, and made eye contact and looked out the door and back at me. the stupid human said “search” and he made eye contact againa and stepped ahead and came back to heel and made eye contact and looked out the door. I am a stupid human, but not that stupid. I went out the door and into the hall way. He followed. I looked into the next bedroom and there was the toy in the middle of the room. I pointed it out to him and he sat and looked at me (disgust was clear on his face; I wasn’t doing this right). So I went and picked up the toy and he danced around me and raced back to our room. I went back in there and he came to heel once more. I gave him back his toy, and he hid it again. His hiding skills are not terrific, but they are a lot of fun. He repeated this until I finally put the toy away about two hours later. He was most delighted if I would race after the toy and look hard for it. It doesn’t count if I walk int he room and pick it up. I need to look all around the edges of the room first. He clearly shaped me to do the role he normally filled in our search games. As I read of the dogs who have vocabularies in the thousands, I wonder…what are we NOT experiencing of our dog’s intelligence. I have never been able to put the game on cue, but once in a while, he will invite me to go search like this. the problem is that when it happens, I rarely have a video camera available to record it, so at the moment, this is really anecdotal. It sure is a lot of fun though.

    • wildewmn says:

      Wow, Sue, that’s pretty amazing! And luckily, it sounds like you’re very trainable. That’s one smart dog, and I love that he shaped your behavior until you “got” it.

      I too wonder how much we underestimate our dogs’ intelligence. My old GSD Soko used to manipulate my boy Mojo. Whenever he’d take her ball and put it in the middle of the room and dare her to go for it, she’d instead pretend she heard something outside. She’d perk up her ears and dash out the dog door. Inevitably, Mojo would follow. She’d then dash back inside and take the ball. Funny thing was, he fell for it every time.

  6. dog leash says:

    I never really understood until we got a yorkie. Tobey is such a smart dog that I really never thought that much about it. My wife and I have had to spell some things so not to get him too excited about some things (is that nuts or what). We make sure he is involved in our family since he has no idea that he isn’t one of the kids.

  7. Megan says:

    Great post. I find this also to be incredibly true for perceived “lazy” or “mellow” dogs — dogs who maybe don’t have a lot of energy or aren’t typically running around looking for things to do. But, if you engage them mentally, they suddenly have a burst of energy to do training or play a game that involves their brain. My rescued pit mix, Roxy, is like this. She is very low energy, and most of my friends just think she’s lazy. The reality of it is that she much prefers to exercise her brain than anything else. She gets the zoomies and runs around playing for a little bit, but just plain exercise bores her. But she never seems to get bored or lose interest in working or training. I can’t help but wonder how many “mellow” or “lazy” dogs like Roxy are out there that simply don’t get any mental stimulation because they’re perceived as easy dogs that don’t require a whole lot. I bet, if their humans engaged them with the clicker or other mental stimulation, they would be incredibly surprised!

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