Think of it as the era of Doggie Einstein.
"People's interests in smart or interactive toys have definitely increased in the last five years," said Liz McGuinness, marketing and business development manager for U.K.-based The Company of Animals, which carries the popular Nina Ottosson puzzles, among dozens of other games. "Ten years ago, you had to convince people why they should train a pet."
Now, the marketplace cannot stock enough of these products, she said. The Company of Animals alone has expanded its smart-toys offerings to more than three dozen, including the recent Dog Casino.
It's "a booming, million-dollar industry," McGuinness said.
Debra Mazda of South Philadelphia is Hannah's owner, and while she enjoys teaching her Lab tricks, she thinks it's essential for the dog's well-being. "My Hannah has the intelligence of a fifth grader," the proud mama said, "a smart fifth grader."
Well, the old girl might not be quite that clever. But dogs do score as well as toddlers on skills tests. The brightest breeds can learn to identify colors, count, and read. Cats are not far behind, but the barkers get more attention.
"Dogs who are worked, given problems to solve, tasks to do, taught things, actually grow new connections and systematically become more intelligent," said canine expert Stanley Coren, a Philadelphia native who is professor emeritus of psychology (the human kind) at the University of British Columbia and researches both people and animal behaviors.
Studies that adapt skills tests designed for young children to canines show that the average pooch has the smarts of a 2-year-old, said Coren, author of The Intelligence of Dogs. That means Buster can learn 165 words, signs, and signals. The smartest dogs compare to 21/2-year-olds and can understand 250 commands. Some researchers are teaching guide dogs to recognize simple words (i.e. read) and do very basic addition and subtraction.
"You're not going to want your dog to be your accountant and do your taxes," Coren said, "but it's a useful skill."
Canines also express emotions such as happiness and anger, he said. (Just this week it was reported that a bomb-sniffing German shepherd who did duty in Iraq was diagnosed on his return home with post-traumatic stress disorder.)
Who's the brightest in the pack? Dog obedience trainers say border collies, poodles, German shepherds, golden retrievers, and Doberman pinschers, in that order.
Cats have brain power, too - and their share of cognitive products, such as SmartCat Peek and Play Toy Box. The average kitty is closer to an 18-month-old human, able to master about 35 words, Coren said. Supercats, such as the Maine coon cat, reach the level of the average dog.
Lauren Simeone of South Philadelphia has two beagles: Balki, who is 14 months old, and 'Tater Salad, who is 3 years old. "At first, I thought Balki was the stupidest dog I ever met," Simeone admits.
For months he never responded to his name. Then Simeone realized that Balki, who's creative at figuring out challenging toys, was simply ignoring her. "He was playing dumb," she said. "Actually, he's very smart."
So is 'Tater Salad, said Simeone, who has taught the beagle tricks. He has learned "prancing ponies," in which he stands on his hind legs and spins in circles, and to give hugs. "I'll tell him, 'Come and give Mommy a hug.' He comes and sits in my lap. He'll put his paws on either side of my neck and squeeze."
In Smart Tricks for Smart Dogs, out since fall, author and trainer Mary Ann Nester gives a guide to teaching dogs to triple twist, bow, weave, high-five, and do other feats. It includes a gold-sticker chart to show off progress.
"That's for the humans," she allowed. "People like to mark each milestone."
Animals thrive when learning new tricks. And mental enrichment has become more necessary in these workaholic times, where working masters mean many pets spend the entire day cooped up at home, no longer able to chase rabbits over 40-acre farms.
"People got pets, and the pets no longer had a job, besides being cuddled," Nester said. "The mental muscle was left to stagnate."
Veterinarian Ilana Reisner said our fast-paced, close-quarters lifestyle has only compounded the doggie doldrums. "We don't have a life where dogs can be dogs," said the director of the Behavior Clinic at the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania.
More than ever, folks have to rely on dog care and interactive toys to occupy pets and improve behavior because, as any owner knows, a bored dog is a bad dog.
StarMark makes a high-demand Everlasting Fireplug that can be stuffed with hard-to-get-at treats or peanut butter. "Provides hours of mental stimulation," the packaging says, sounding (and looking) like those edutainment products aimed at eager parents of young children.
Canine Genius' Leos, named after da Vinci, are treat-release toys that exercise "your dog's mind." And books such as last October's Dog University by Viviane Theby teach counting, reading, and distinguishing shapes. (What's next? Harvard Hound U?)
Howard Nelson, vice president of retail operations for Doggie Style, which is based in Philadelphia with 11 regional stores, said he often packs kibble and peanut butter in the Kong Stuffable Classic, sold at the store, for his dogs. Cali, his husky/shepherd mix, figured out that if she dropped the toy from the top of the staircase, more kibble fell out (smart dog). His black Lab, Emmy, learned to sit at the bottom of the staircase and wait for Cali to do the work (smarter dog).
The Nina Ottosson games, out of Sweden, include the Dog Tornado ($49.99), which requires the animal to dislodge a plastic bone, then turn revolving sections to reveal the goodies. Another one, the Dog Brick, is similar to a tic-tac-toe grid with pieces that slide. The logo alone speaks volumes: It's a dog with a monocle, mortarboard, and training guide book between its paws.
The interactive products encourage natural behaviors, such as hunting and exploration, said Reisner of Penn, who welcomes the plethora of animal edutainment.
Other species can benefit, too. Birds, she said, need highly stimulating environments. And small mammals such as rats and mice love agility courses.
Reisner cautioned, however, that pet owners can overdo it. "No matter how cute the trick, what's most important is how the animal is taught," she said, frowning on negative reinforcement. "Whether it's sitting or bowling, it has to be fun and reward-based."
And, of course, she noted, high-priced toys are not essential to stimulate pets. "You can do the same thing by hiding food around the house," the vet said.
Back at Doggie Style, Hannah and the other dogs are jumping over agility gates and considering whether to enter a tunnel even as they gnaw at soccer balls.
"Good job," camp counselor Eileen Lord says as she drops kibble into open mouths.
At home, Hannah is learning to count, proving you can teach an old dog new tricks.
"I say one, and she'll put her paw out once," Mazda said. "We've got past two, and we're working on three."
Contact Lini S. Kadaba at Lkadaba@gmail.com.