Those of us who love dogs think they catch as well or better than some professional baseball players. Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and founder of ARF (Animal Rescue Foundation) in Oakland, is an expert on both. The new book, Three Nights in August (by Buzz Bissinger, published by Houghton Mifflin) details La Russa’s intense and analytical methods that his players subscribe to as well. Mike Matheny, the Cardinals’ catcher, is so exacting about his role that he spends hours watching videos of balls coming at him. But, La Russa will also tell you that his lab mix, Res, is the best catcher in the world and in the history of baseball. However, Yogi Berra, the quintessential catcher for the NY Yankees, simply feels men are better equipped for the job because they have two hands. Berra didn’t think dogs were good team players because all his ran away.
Leave it to science to take the parallel a step further and prove that men and dogs use the same geometric relationships to catch a variety of things. A research paper by Dr. Dennis Shaffer examined this premise. Dr. Shaffer studied baseball outfielders and questioned if a common problem solving technique was used by humans and canines when both were tracking and pursuing moving objects. He also wondered if this cross-species strategy held true between baseballs and frisbees, the latter a target with more variable flight patterns. And, what exactly did a dog focus on when it is in hot pursuit of a flying plastic disk? To gather data, Dr. Schaffer enlisted the help of Lilly, a Boarder Collie, and Romeo, a Springer Spaniel. These patient research assistants wore battery packs and had cameras strapped to their heads so a remote video could record what the dog was literally seeing. (And you can’t get your dog to wear a sweater).
As the frisbee changed course, the dogs reacted accordingly. In navigational terms, the dogs maintained the target along a linear optical trajectory (LOT) with consistent optical velocity. More simply, they analyze how the frisbee is falling and predict where it is going if traveling in a straight line at one speed. If the wind caused it to rise or drift side to side, the dogs recalculated and moved to the anticipated spot where they could catch it.
Physiology of man and dog begs comparison. As the study tracked head motion instead of eye motion, peripheral vision was not considered as a factor. Dogs have a range of side-to-side of about 245 degrees, 60-70 greater than their owners. Human and dog eyes function differently because of the amount of receptors, rods and cones, each possess. Cones are color sensitive; rods do not encode color but are crucial for seeing in dim light and detecting motion. Much like a color-blind human, dogs cannot distinguish certain shades from the other. Humans have three types of cones and dogs, two. Man has more cones than rods, dogs more rods than cones. In combination with a wider field of vision, a canine retina is truly made for tracking and catching moving objects, like baseballs, frisbees and (before domestication) food.
The predatory instinct is only briefly touched on in the research paper. Of course, another study should be done with cameras strapped to ballplayers’ heads as they try and catch a rabbit. Then, we could compare apples to apples. But, an answer to the age old question, “Who catches better, a man or a dog?” seems obvious. However, now you know that your faithful friend could probably help tutor your teenager in geometry, too.