View From Lodi, CA: The LOT of Springer Spaniels
January 17, 2003, 04:00 AM
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Long-time readers of this space have been asking me why so much time has passed since I last wrote about my dogs.

I tell them that during the last two years I have lost four of my closest four-legged dog pals and two great cats.

I've often started a column about the dogs and cats. But I've never been able to get very far.

Each was either a stray that wandered in or one that I picked up from a local shelter. They went everywhere, did everything and had long, wonderful lives. I loved them all equally. Their unique but predictable personality quirks were a daily source of joy.

One of my dogs Howie, a Springer Spaniel, was a well-known personality around Lodi. He sat in the passenger seat of my Jeep, and over his sixteen years developed a strong following around town.

Howie was most admired at the irrigation canal where his acrobatic feats catching a tennis ball were the stuff of legend. His fans called him "Air Howie."

No matter whether I threw the ball, Howie caught it. All the tosses—low and straight or high and arching—were easy catches. Whether Howie needed to swerve, turn, accelerate or apply the brakes, the inevitable catch was a foregone conclusion.

For an encore, I would throw the ball over the tulles where it would disappear from sight for a few seconds. Howie timed his leap, soared into the air and re-appeared with the ball in the clutches of his jaw.

"Howie is unbelievable. He's an artist, a virtual Willie Mays," I would say to anyone within ear shot.

No one ever argued.

And now, I have proof positive that Howie was indeed a genius. Howie had a built-in grasp of arithmetic and physics that enabled him to navigate successfully underneath any ball in flight.

According to Arizona State research scientist Dr. Dennis M. Schaffer (and his trusty Springer spaniel Romeo), dogs and baseball outfielders use the same instinctive and unconscious mathematical calculations to catch objects hurling through the air.

Schaffer calls his theory "LOT" — Linear Optical Trajectory. Dogs like Howie make an image in their brain of the moving target and perform the split-second calculations required to catch up with the ball.

If the ball changes course in mid-air, as it often did as when I threw it into a strong wind or rain, dogs will simply re-set their navigational course and proceed.

At a presentation in Orlando to the Psychonomics Society, the Arizona State researchers demonstrated that dogs use one straight-line trajectory to track the object in flight from the thrower's hand to the point where it curved off course.

Once the original flight path changed, dogs rely on a second straight-line trajectory from the turning point to the landing place.

Dr. Shaffer concluded "both dogs and humans seem to have the innate ability to track an object flying through three-dimensional space by using information in the two-dimensional image on their retina."

Now I know what accounted for Howie's great ball-hawking skills.

LOT is all well and good. But I would like some input from Arizona State on some lingering questions I have about my dog pals:

  • How was Howie able to catch the ball just as easily in pea-soup fog as bright sunshine? The LOT theory wouldn't apply on a pre-dawn January morning.

  • Why would Howie go all-day, every day to fetch a tennis ball but wouldn't give a Frisbee a second glance? And why did he have to have the same ball for an entire session? Howie permitted no substitutions once his daily routine began.

  • Why would Russie, a brick-solid Chesapeake Bay retriever, swim after sticks but only if they were four feet long and weighed more than ten pounds?

  • Why wouldn't Russie swim after tennis balls no matter how bored she got?

  • Why wouldn't Spot go in deeper than his ankles even though he was a water dog like all the rest?

  • Why is my new dog Fido, a Springer also, mainly interested in gnawing on tennis balls and only occasionally willing to chase them?

Maybe Howie was really one of a kind - just as I always knew.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.