It’s a typical girl-and-her-dog story. Whenever the 6-year-old sees her pet basset hound, she jumps up and down in glee. She hugs the dog, toys with its floppy ears, then begins swatting at it playfully, getting the pooch to dash away, bark, then come back for another swipe. Each time the dog returns, the 6-year-old pulls her lips back over her teeth and grins with satisfaction.
No, her smile isn’t unusually wide—not for a chimpanzee. Sheba, the 60-lb., 3½’-tall 6-year-old, belongs to a primate cognition project at Ohio State University. Part of her program—which is being conducted by associate psychology professor Sally Boysen—involves learning to choose colors, to recognize body parts and to count (Sheba has mastered the numbers from zero to seven). The other part of her program involves learning to take care of her own pet, Skylar, a 9-month-old basset. Skylar’s function is more social than cerebral. Because Sheba was raised in the home of a Columbus Zoo volunteer for two years, she wasn’t in a mood to learn when she came to the project in 1984. “She was a real princess, spoiled from all the human attention,” says Boysen, 38, who hopes to apply her findings to helping learning-disabled children. “Whenever I challenged her with a new task, she’d wimp out on me and cry.” Skylar, whom she adopted, so to speak, five months ago, helped Sheba open up. “I got Skylar for Sheba for the same reason people buy pets for children,” says Boysen. “It’s part of the socialization process. Sheba is in charge of the dog, just as a human would be. She tells Skylar what to do and where to go with gestures and vocalizations.”
Their games will soon become more structured. For starters, Sheba will learn to throw a stick for Skylar to fetch. “Having a dog is teaching Sheba responsibility,” says Boysen. “Besides, they’re as cute as hell for a kids’ book I want to write.”