Monday, May 30, 2011

If Only Dogs Had Better Vocal Cords...

Dear George,

Years ago there was a Sociology grad student in my seminar named Bella who had worked in a veterinary hospital. When we discussed an article by philosopher George Herbert Mead that proposed a qualitative difference between human communication via symbols and dogs’ communication by signs, Bella was indignant. She argued that dogs had a much greater capacity for understanding human communication than people think and that the supposed differences between dogs and humans are mere matters of degree. I didn’t really disagree with Bella since I tend to believe that dogs are just small furry versions of human beings, but I did try to defend George Herbert Mead.

I was reminded of Bella’s convictions when I recently read in the New York Times about psychologist John W. Pilley’s research. When he retired, Prof. Pilley decided to see how large a vocabulary he could teach to his border collie, Chaser. He began spending four to five hours a day showing her an object, repeating its name up to 40 times, then hiding it and asking her to find it. Chaser loved her task and constantly begged for more. After three years Chaser’s vocabulary included names for 800 different stuffed animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees, and numerous plastic objects. When they reached a thousand words, Pilley switched to teaching her grammar. First he taught her the words for three different actions: pawing, nosing, and fetching. Then he presented Chaser with three different toys, and gave her different commands for each, e.g., “paw the pink ball.” Chaser reliably did whatever her master told her. He also found that Chaser understood abstract categories, e.g., “Fetch a Frisbee” or “Nose a ball.” Pilley believes that most border collies could learn as much as Chaser and that failures result mostly from the teacher’s impatience.

Even before I ran across Professor Pilley’s research, I’d begun compiling a list of human language that our sheepdogs Mike and Duffy understand. Some of these are commands that they learned as puppies at Obedience School, e.g., sit, come, heel, down, stay, wait. The main difficulty in judging the dogs’ comprehension of these instructions is their own stubbornness. “Sit”, for example, works 100% of the time when I have a piece of food in my hand, but the dogs are less obsessive about “Sit” in the absence of food. I think they understand “Down” o.k. but prefer not to do it because of arthritic hips. “Wait” works excellently at the stoplight, and “O.K.!” works even better when the Walk light comes on. “Here comes Katja” leads both dogs to race to the back door, jumping and barking. Likewise, “Let’s go upstairs!” precipitates a dash in the opposite direction. When I ask Duffy, “Where’s your Kong?” he runs straight to it, bringing it back to play tug of war.

There are other human vocalizations which the dogs don’t pay much attention to. “Stop barking!” and “Stop pulling (on the leash)!” have little effect, nor do most other “Stop” exclamations. “Let’s go pee-pee” or “poo-poo” don’t have much impact until the dogs are biologically ready. In fact, there seems to be a reverse effect -- the colder or wetter the weather, the longer it takes for these suggestions to take hold. Likewise, “Leave that alone!” (with reference to smelling another dog’s poop) falls on deaf ears. In all these cases I think the dogs know what their humans are saying. They just prefer to do their own thing.

The most recent conversation in English I’ve had with the dogs was when I left the house this morning. They both suffer from separation anxiety, so I explained on my way out: “O.k., I’m going to go to my office now. I’ll be back a little later. Probably in about three hours. Possibly less. Duffy, you’re in charge. Mikey, you do whatever Duffy says. Bye bye, see you later. Be good.” Both dogs sat transfixed, paying close attention to my every word, and they appeared to nod their heads at the end of my speech. I think they got the gist of it, though perhaps not every tiny detail.

So what is one to make of this? My conclusion is that border collies are probably the smartest, but Old English Sheepdogs are right up there in second place, and they are about as intelligent as dolphins, great apes, ten-year-old children, and people with early onset Alzheimer’s. It’s sort of scary because, like little kids, they are always watching and listening and comprehend more than we give them credit for. I am waiting for the day when doctors figure out how to transplant human vocal cords into dogs. You can bet there will be some very thought-provoking discussions around our house when that occurs.



G-Mail Comments

-Jennifer M (5-31): Funny post. Reminded me of this: Click where it says, "The New Science of Understanding Dog Behavior." Really interesting.

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