PHILADELPHIA — Hannah grabs the tennis ball out of the air, drops it on the floor, and nudges it toward the colorful plastic pins with her nose.
She scores a spare — and a chicken-flavored treat.
Not bad for an 8-year-old Lab who started bowling only a few months ago (albeit eons in dog years) at Camp Dogwood, the Philadelphia pet boutique and dog care that provides cognitively challenging activities to its four-legged charges.
Increasingly, pets are getting mental workouts, as research — and savvy marketers — touts the intelligence of creatures great and small, as well as the benefits of stimulating play: Smart pets behave better. They're in tune with their natural instincts. And, like precocious children, bright pooches give their owners bragging rights.
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 has expanded its smart-toys offerings to more than three dozen.
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 professor emeritus of psychology (the human kind) at the University of British Columbia who researches human 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 2 1/2-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 last month 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.
In "Smart Tricks for Smart Dogs," author and trainer Mary Ann Nester gives a guide to teaching dogs to 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 times, where working masters mean many pets spend the day cooped up at home, no longer able to chase rabbits over 40-acre farms.
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.
Other species can benefit, too. Birds, Reisner 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."