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Dogs Catch Like the Pros Do

Canines' keen skills at snaring flying objects akin to outfielders'

MONDAY, July 19, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Major league talent scouts, listen up: A springer spaniel named Romeo and a border collie called Lilly are giving the world's best pro baseball players a real run for their money.

In video obtained from a minicam strapped to the dogs' heads, the two canines caught Frisbees using the same navigational skills employed by baseball outfielders. In fact, dogs may perfect their catching skills earlier than humans ever could, scientists say.

"The general pattern with dogs and Frisbees is the same as it was with humans and balls," said study author Michael K. McBeath, a psychology professor and director of the Sensation and Perception Lab at Arizona State University.

While the study may seem like pure summer fun, it's giving neuroscientists important insights into how humans -- and most animals -- interact with other moving objects in the natural world.

In 1995, McBeath's lab team published a study in Science in which they strapped video cameras to the shoulders of baseball players running to catch fly balls.

Although it seems simple, the act of intercepting a moving object in space requires split-second computations involving changing speeds, angles and distances.

How does the mind successfully process all that information so quickly? According to McBeath and other scientists in the field, humans seem to rely upon what's known as "control theory."

Even though the position and speed of the ball may be changing, the human brain copes by "trying to maintain a certain state," McBeath explained. In the baseball player study, for example, players' movements helped maintain the optical illusion that the ball was traveling along a simple trajectory at a constant rate of speed.

"You're keeping the image in a straight line, and also keeping it going at a constant rate, too," McBeath explained.

Most of this isn't rationally thought out, and may even originate in a part of the brain responsible for more primitive motor reflexes.

"It seems to be an unconscious thing," McBeath said. "We've had baseball players, when we've described all this, say 'Hey, that's not what I do!' There seems to be less conscious awareness of what you're doing."

In fact, the pleasure most people take in catching small moving objects may be hard-wired, linked through evolution to the predator-prey dynamic.

"Even simple creatures like insects are really good at navigating around and intercepting things," McBeath pointed out.

So might man's best friend utilize the same techniques as well?

In their most recent study, published in the July issue of Psychological Science, McBeath's team strapped tiny minicams to Romeo and Lilly's heads, taping their points of view as they friskily caught Frisbee after Frisbee.

The scientists used Frisbees instead of balls because Frisbees are more liable to change their trajectory in mid-flight. According to McBeath, the researchers wanted to see how dogs would react when objects "veered off a little, in a different direction."

"We were able to [record] 30 different throws that the dogs caught, where the image of the Frisbee stayed in the camera range," he said.

Viewing the tapes, the researchers report the dogs used the same control theory techniques to catch Frisbees as ballplayers did catching pop flies.

Like humans, Romeo and Lilly "try and maintain the same linear optical trajectory," McBeath said.

And if a gust of wind or a wobbly toss throws the Frisbee in a different direction, "they seem to think, 'OK, let's try a new trajectory,'" instantly shifting their navigational focus.

The study is "an extremely original piece of work," said Richard Marken, a senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corp., who has been investigating navigational theories for use in missile defense systems and new medical technologies.

"All the dog has to do is keep the velocity -- vertical and horizontal -- constant and they will catch the Frisbee," he said.

Dogs seem to have an instinctive ability to catch fast-moving objects, even as puppies, Marken added, whereas humans need a bit more training.

"It's what evolution has done for dogs, and less so with humans," he said. "People have to learn it more."

So what makes Romeo, Lilly -- and a few Major League Baseball-playing humans -- so good at the simple act of catching?

"To keep that ball moving in a straight line [optically], you've got to move fast," Marken said. "The second thing you've got to do is you've got to know exactly what perception to produce" to maintain constant control over the ball moving through space.

According to Marken, "what makes these guys like Willie Mays -- the great catchers -- great, was their plain brute force ability to be both fast and good."

More information

Find out more about how the brain works from the Society for Neuroscience.

SOURCES: Michael K. McBeath, Ph.D., professor, psychology, and director, Sensation and Perception Lab, Arizona State University, Tempe; Richard Marken, Ph.D., senior behavioral scientist, Rand Corp., Santa Monica, Calif.; July 2004 Psychological Science; photo courtesy Michael K. McBeath
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