When I and my dog Daisy and I are out for our walks, we talk, that is at least I talk and she listens. I believe Daisy understands most of what I say and I am still working on figuring out what she has to "say."
Intriguing but understandable that most of the work done in animal cognition and communication measures how well non human animals understand us humans and how little is done on how well we truly understand animals. Telling too how we do the teaching; signing to animals who cannot sign back lacking digits or even arms to return signs or words to those who cannot form them or symbols to those without instruments to recreate same. We are intent to quantify their capacity for receptive human language while we fall short on beginning to be able to adequately measure their capacity for their own productive "language" with all our attendant ignorances' of its symbolism, concepts and signifigances' beyond basic functionality.
Living with companion animals means a treasure trove of observations about just how smart and clever they are. But getting the scientists to agree is a whole other story. And when scientists start doing experiments that raise suggestions those non-human animals might learn the way human animals do, eyebrows can raise even higher.
Researchers John W. Pilley and Alliston K. Reid relate studies done with a border collie named Chaser. Chaser not only has a vocabulary of 1,022 words, (Chaser’s appetite to learn was only limited by the time the researchers had to teach her.) Chaser also understands grammar. Combining commands such as "nose", 'take" or "paw" with the names of objects will elicit Chaser pairing the requested behavior with the desired object. Chaser knows the difference between a common noun and a proper one as well, being able to group categories such as "ball" with all balls and differentiate when asked to obtain a specific ball. Moreover, Chaser has shown that she can learn by exclusion, which is simply to say that if she is asked to find something she has never seen before and it is amongst familiar objects she can figure out what the new thing is.
Preliminary training with Chaser was done by associating behaviors with reinforcement and shaping, think traditional positive dog training. Chaser also learned agility, herding and tracking (she is a border collie after all). The real “work” of the study came in teaching Chaser all those words. An object would be held up, pointed to, labeled and left for Chaser to locate, think foreign language class 101. For hours every day Chaser heard: “Chaser, this is _______. Pop hide. Chaser find_______.”
Research with Chaser was inspired by tests measuring just how “smart” another border collie was. The other border collie, Rico, had mastered over 200 words, paired verbs and objects and also showed learning by exclusion. While Rico’s vocabulary was smaller than Chaser's; it bears mentioning that Rico only heard the name of an object once or twice. A very quick study indeed. And Rico did not get to spend the hours in the classroom that Chaser did. When work on Rico was published some critics questioned techniques used to measure Rico’s accomplishments (but not his vocabulary). Work with Chaser was specifically designed to address these criticisms and more
The work with Chaser is truly a landmark study. Similar studies will surely follow attempting to determine if this is just about Chaser, or border collies or female border collies, or how and when Chaser learned what she did. Dog training methods might be radically transformed with what will come out of this and other studies like it.
For dog lovers some vindication of what many of you already know exists in this study. Your dog certainly understands you but you knew that already. Who knows? Your dog just may be an even bigger prodigy than Chaser. After all, one of the critiques leveled at dog learning vs. human learning is that dogs can not learn robustly by overhearing words and knowing what they mean. Now, that might be true for some dogs but for those of us who have to spell out w-a-l-k, p-a-r-k, b-e-a-c-h, i-c-e-c-r-e-a-m, etc. we know differently.
Taking apart the puzzle of foreign communication is a lot like watching a movie without the sound. You can see what people are talking about but you can never be sure why they are talking about it. Teaching our language to another species is a lot like teaching them the “what” but still leaving out the “why”. Perhaps to find the "why" we have to first understand what the other "language" of the world of non human animals is like, a world our human senses do not permit us to experience. The smells and sounds that the cats and dogs that live with us comprehend, the magnetic pull of the earth birds and cattle respond to, the pitch and frequency of whale song, what owls and cats see and hear at night, the full spectrum of colors birds see, the echolocation of bats and dolphins, the rumblings of the earth that elephants sense beneath their feet, the list goes on and on. After all, why not have a two way conversation?
(So far, Chaser is her own success story. Two articles in The New York Times and a spot on Nova appeared shortly after the study published with more to follow. Prospective dog owners wanting a border collie of their own to talk to should think twice. Border collies are high energy, high maintenance working dogs not suited to apartment living.)
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"After all, one of the critiques leveled at dog learning vs. human learning is that dogs can not learn robustly by overhearing words and knowing what they mean. Now, that might be true for some dogs but for those of us who have to spell out w-a-l-k, p-a-r-k, b-e-a-c-h, i-c-e-c-r-e-a-m, etc. we know differently".
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copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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