THE SOPPY PSEUDOPISKIE SELECTION

From THE NEW YORK TIMES:

Chaser, a border collie who lives in Spartanburg, S.C., has the largest vocabulary of any known dog. She knows 1,022 nouns, a record that displays unexpected depths of the canine mind and may help explain how children acquire language.
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Chaser lives with John W. Pilley, a psychologist who taught for 30 years at Wofford College, a liberal arts institution in Spartanburg. In 2004, after he had retired, he read a report in Science about Rico, a border collie whose German owners had taught him to recognize 200 items, mostly toys and balls. Dr. Pilley decided to repeat the experiment using a technique he had developed for teaching dogs, and he describes his findings in the current issue of the journal Behavioural Processes.

He bought Chaser as a puppy in 2004 from a local breeder and started to train her for four to five hours a day. He would show her an object, say its name up to 40 times, then hide it and ask her to find it, while repeating the name all the time. She was taught one or two new names a day, with monthly revisions and reinforcement for any names she had forgotten.

Dr. Pilley does not know how large a vocabulary Chaser could have mastered. When she reached 1,000 items, he grew tired of teaching words and moved to more interesting topics like grammar.

One of the questions raised by the Rico study was that of what was going through the dog’s mind when he was asked to fetch something. Did he think of his toys as items labeled fetch-ball, fetch-Frisbee, fetch-doll, or did he understand the word “fetch” separately from its object, as people do? He addressed the question by teaching Chaser three different actions: pawing, nosing and taking an object. She was then presented with three of her toys and correctly pawed, nosed or fetched each one depending on the command given to her. “That experiment demonstrates conclusively that Chaser understood that the verb had a meaning,” Dr. Pilley said.

The 1,022 words in Chaser’s vocabulary are all proper nouns. Dr. Pilley also found that Chaser could be trained to recognize categories, in other words common nouns. She correctly follows the command “Fetch a Frisbee” or “Fetch a ball.” She can also learn by exclusion, as children do. If she is asked to fetch a new toy with a word she does not know, she will pick it out from ones that are familiar.

COMMENT: As somebody who has had the honour of living with border collies for nearly 52 years this surprises me because of the numbers involved, but that is all. I long ago came to the conclusion that dogs, and many other animals, have the same potential for language as human beings, that the thought processes needed for thinking and communication are already in place - they are not something unique to humans and evolved well back in the tree of life.

I think it is only a matter of time before somebody breeds a basic voice box into a dog or an ape and we are chatting together like long lost friends. That will be a real wake up call to humankind and we will have to throw most of our philosophy, biology and, above all, theology books in the bin.

How do I know this will happen? Because it is possible and because my youngest collie talks to Mrs MP and myself all the while. And she gets so cross that we are too stupid to understand what she is saying. This claim is not anthropomorphism, it's just how things are as anybody who has lived with dogs, and who has eyes to see and ears to hear (which rules out a lot of scientists, especially those researching animal behaviour) will tell you.

There is a video of chaser outsmarting the average X Factor contestant at the newspaper's website.

Comments

THE SOPPY PSEUDOPISKIE SELECTION — 32 Comments

  1. I am in no way surprised by this report, like you, I know animals are seriously underated when it comes to responses to human orders, requests etc. The one thing I would add is that cats display their superior intelligence with the single response “Fetch, Me?”
    or perhaps “am I bovvered?”

  2. Our Cavaliers snuffle and stomp their feet when we don’t respond to their commands. We hope that the research will help us to smarten up.

  3. I remember the day that I realized my German Shepherd was recognizing specific object names, and I then began to test the extent of his knowledge. He was freaky smart, and could even recognize differences among facial expressions (e.g., I’d make an angry face, and his ears would go down. Happy face – ears and tail up! We would work on that while he was staring intently at me, attempting to use Jedi mind tricks to get me out of bed.).

    Now, I don’t want to go all sciency on your ass, Mad One, but there is much more to speech and language than vocal cords – In fact, the larynx is the easy part!

  4. But that’s my point, KJ. I think that some animals have got everything else and it’s just the lack of vocal chords that stop them speaking. Of course, I’m not saying they are going to start arguing about trees falling in the forest straight away. But I reckon it is already possible to engineer speaking animals and that we could selectively breed animals capable of complex speech very quickly.

  5. Oh, and the really clever thing about your shepherd, KJ, was that he worked out that when you smiled you were happy when in canine a grin and/or the showing of teeth is an aggressive signal. Of course, all our pet dogs learn that. But then they’re not stupid.

  6. No news to me, either. And each of our dogs was different in their vocalizations – not talking about barking or howling, either. Xena’s talking is far more like human speech than Bart’s or Kate’s was. Her tonal inflections are much more complex, closer to the rise and fall of human speech. I do love this post, MP.

  7. One of my cats (I know, it is not a dog and, for some readers, that’s an automatic demerit) has the most extensive vocabulary… not just what she understands but what she says to me. I understand the small meow of a question and the loud meow of give me what is off your plate – they are the obvious meows but there are more subtle meows that I have yet to figure out other than she wants me to know something.

  8. I think it is only a matter of time before somebody breeds a basic voice box into a dog or an ape and we are chatting together like long lost friends. That will be a real wake up call to humankind and we will have to throw most of our philosophy, biology and, above all, theology books in the bin… This claim is not anthropomorphism, it’s just how things are as anybody who has lived with dogs, and who has eyes to see and ears to hear (which rules out a lot of scientists, especially those researching animal behaviour) will tell you.

    Even if they never invent that voice box, I could not agree more. It’s not just dogs or apes – it’s birds too. And cats, and a good many other creatures. I do not have the words to say exactly how much I agree.

  9. Thanks, Lois. I couldn’t think of the words to describe how our youngster vocalises but I think she must sound the same as Xena.

    Ever since I had a stand up row in class with an English teacher who insisted animals couldn’t think because they had no language I have had a bee in my bonnet about this. For years I have been accused of anthropomorphism for my views, even on this blog. But the tide is turning. More and more scientists are beginning to let go of the arrogant belief that humans are somehow intrinsically different to animals.

    To be honest, I hold to the concept of reverse-anthropomorphism. I think humans are far more like animals than they care to admit. When people say that animals do things simply because of instinct I reply, “Why do you think people do stuff if it isn’t through instinct as well?” And I have seen more animals go against their instinct than I have seen humans going against their natural instinct.

  10. I told my cat, Henry about this clever dog and he’s very jealous. He has got nowhere near training me to understand 1200 commands yet.

  11. Yes, Cathy. And the potential for language must have evolved before all these species split into their various lines, which is a hell of a long time ago.

    Of course, it is quite possible that some dinosaurs chatted to each other about current affairs and the football scores. We’re never going to know. In fact, perhaps the last words of the last dinosaur were, “What the fuck was that that just flew over?”

  12. He he!

    One thing I love about budgies, which are tiny critters but full of life and spirit, God love them, was that a good many of the budgies we kept when I was a child would not only talk to us all the time, they would positively rant. There were many occasions on which you would just be sitting there minding your own business when a budgie would leave its cage (they were allowed round the family home freely when I was growing up), fly over, perch itself on your leg or your chair arm or somewhere close, stare right in your eye, and start up a right diatribe, about who knows what, but it was clearly something the budgie felt strongly about. It would maintain the eye contact and get more and more and more vehement until the diatribe had reached the point of manic head bobbing, ear-piercing shrieks and apocalyptic bouts of screeching. Then it would abruptly break off and fly back to sit with its budgie mates who would inevitably greet its return with a righteous outcry of their own, obviously saying “that’s right mate, you bloody told her!” I never had the faintest idea what they were going on about except in the case of a visitor with bright pink trousers where the trousers were quite clearly the source of offence, because the budgie kept pointedly glaring at them in between indignant squawks.

  13. I can see no reason why birds would be cleverer now than they were millions of years ago. Humans assume that everything was stupid before they came onto the scene. The truth is that stupidity probably wasn’t even invented until we came along.

    (From “The Thoughts of Chairman MadPriest”)

  14. Humans assumed everything was stupid after they came on the scene, excluding humans (which is extremely irritating).

    The truth is that stupidity probably wasn’t even invented until we came along.

    Exactly! That should be on the title page of your Little Red Book 🙂

  15. I think humans are far more like animals than they care to admit. When people say that animals do things simply because of instinct I reply, “Why do you think people do stuff if it isn’t through instinct as well?

    Exactly right. I so agree with this as well.

    Most of the alleged essential “differences” between “beasts” and “humans” – ie the capacity for planning, tool use – have been proved to be bollocks. In my opinion, they’re all bollocks, and time will prove that too.

  16. I’m with Cathy – imagine my stunned surprise when Xena, who does not have opposable thumbs, tore a piece of muslin in half between her teeth and paws in a way that looked exactly human. You had to see it to believe it…for a second I forgot she is a dog!

  17. I’m not so sure dogs don’t have opposable thumbs. In fact, I think that both dogs and cats are just keeping their opposable thumbs secret from us humans. Mrs MP had a spaniel that could undo a bolt on the other side of a gate and pull the gate backwards to get through. But we never actually saw him doing it. Of course, if we had have seen him do it he would have had to have killed us because we would have discovered their little secret.

  18. WEl, I’m not going to defend the scientists. Too many of them in animal behavior ignore what’s in front of them. In studies of sex, they would ignore same sex behavior in the wild, or consider it “practicing” for the main event because it didn’t fit preconceived notions.

    And my disgust was unbridled when someone did a study just a couple of years ago to see if fish feel pain from a fishhook. Of course they do (and did in the study). Idjut.

    Of course, there was a theory in human medicine that said babies couldn’t really feel pain because they didn’t have language or sufficient neural development. We know now that was an obscene conclusion.

    All you have to do is look at the complex social structures and signals that even our domestic pets demonstrate (let along those free-living creatures who don’t have to deal with stupid humans). Do they have language? Probably not the way we think of it, but they certainly have the ability to articulate and communicate and understand.

    I mean, we can’t really conceive of having a nose like a dogs that sees scent in the way we see color, or ears like a cat that can hear the merest rustle.

    On the other hand, we have chosen to live with pretty intelligent creatures–canines, felines, and the psittacine birds. There are a lot of animals who probably wouldn’t be so interesting to “talk” to…like cows, maybe. Or mice. Or pigeons.

  19. Some cows are intelligent enough to have a decent conversation with and mice will talk the hind legs off a donkey. But pigeons – all they want to do is talk about sex all the while.

  20. Is intelligence all, though? I don’t know that I rate different birds less because they are (allegedly) not as bright as parrots.

  21. They can famously be trained to tell the difference between Picasso and Monet.

    True. But only their paintings of nudes. As I said, they are obsessed with sex.

  22. I don’t know that I rate different birds less because they are (allegedly) not as bright as parrots.

    Dumb birds can be fun but I would never have married one.

  23. Aw, Mad Priest, you old softie 🙂

    I derive great joy from watching sparrows and blue tits feed at the bird feeder. I don’t know that either is a bright species but I don’t care. They’re both supremely beautiful.

  24. European sparrows. They have nothing useful to say.

    And someone imported them here a couple hundred years ago and they are “junk” city birds now.

  25. IT, I love sparrows. Nothing makes me happier than the sight of sparrows. And I love the way they chit-chat loudly to each other when they are safely stashed in hedges or bushes where they can’t be seen. I think they’re fabulous birds.

  26. When I was in Israel in 1984, I discovered that what we call house sparrows here in the U.S., actually weaver finches, spoke a completely different language in Israel from our U.S. domestic ones. Really.

  27. I didn’t do a big goofy grin at my shepherd, or the leer that David suggests. Just my usual, pleasant smirk. I suspect that a clever dog could figure out the meaning of the human smile with teeth, given how they respond to the voice that goes along with it. “Strider” also learned that whatever he was doing when I cleared my throat, he’d better stop ASAP. Times when I had a cold had the potential of being confusing for him.

    Not that speech was involved, but certainly some concept of “good” and “bad” was apparent one Sunday morning when the two cats were wildly shredding the Sunday paper in the living room. I had a large, open home, so two “rooms” away, I could watch as Strider was taking it all in with apparent delight. Good fun! Then he spotted that I was watching him. Deer caught in the headlights look as his whole body language melted into guilt by association.

    Now, if The Wiener could talk, I believe it would go something like this: “Feed me ’til I puke. Somebody needs to express my anal glands. Is it time to eat? What were we talking about?”