News: Guest Posts
What Do You Hear in These Dog Sounds?
All barks are not alike

AS YOU PROBABLY KNOW, your dog’s voice is not like a Bret Michaels concert, pumping out a shower of meaningless noise. Although your dog’s vocalizations might be unwelcome at times, those sounds carry way more information and meaning than any of the former frontman’s power ballads can ever hope to do. Well, maybe not as much as “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”

In recent years, many studies have investigated the noises made by companion dogs. Now, you (yes, YOU!) can help researchers in a new study where participants listen to and rate different vocalizations. But first, what have we learned about dog vocalizations so far?

Time to Be All Ears

One major finding: dogs bark differently in different contexts, and it’s possible to tell the difference. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, found that “disturbance barks” (e.g., barks in response to a stranger ringing the doorbell) sound different from “isolation barks” (when a dog is separated from an owner) as well as barks emitted during play. In each context, barks have specific acoustic parameters: where disturbance barks are “relatively low-pitched, harsh barks with little variation in pitch or loudness,” isolation barks are “higher pitched, more tonal and more frequency-modulated than the disturbance barks,” and play barks are “similar to the isolation barks except that they usually occurred in clusters rather than singly” (Yin, 2010 Blog Post). Instead of seeing barks as meaningless noise, pay attention. Banjo might be yipping because he’s alone, or he may have noticed that someone uninvited is climbing in through your second floor window.

Dog barks are full of information, but what about growls? Anna Taylor and colleagues at the University of Sussex studied growling and found that, unlike barks, many acoustic properties of growls recorded in a play and aggressive context did not differ. But aggressive growls were longer than play growls, and play growls had a shorter pause between growls.

While growls are thought to be associated with aggression, remember they can also appear during play, so consider growling in a larger context. Additionally, if you come across a situation where growling could be associated with aggression, don’t freak out. Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA and author of The Dog Trainer on Quick and Dirty Tips, reminds: if you punish a dog for growling, you are essentially punishing a dog for giving a warning. Growling is a form of communication related to emotional or inner states in a particular context. If you want to decrease growling, think about what’s prompting the growling. The growling itself is not a problem.

Many high-profile dog vocalization studies were developed by Péter Pongrácz, Csaba Molnár and Tamás Faragó of the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. In one notable study, dogs were placed in a room with a bone, and researchers played a recording of one of three growls from a different dog. Dogs responded to the “this is my food” growl by backing away from the bone, and dogs for the most part ignored the “go away stranger” and the play growl because those growls were not relevant to the bone. All growls are not the same, and dogs know it. So let’s try to get on the same page as them.

While we are learning about the noises coming from dogs’ mouths, we still have a way to go. I recently spoke with Monique Udell, an Assistant Professor at Oregon State University and a canine researcher, for an article on dog vocalizations for The Bark magazine (view article here). As Udell pointed out, “Vocal behavior in other species has received a lot of detailed attention. In birds, we’ve looked down to the note sequence and explored tiny variations. Vocalizations are such a prominent feature of dogs, and there is a lot to learn.”

Listen! You Can Help!

Now, back to what YOU can do to advance the science of vocalizations from the comfort of your couch. Tamás Faragó, now a postdoctoral researcher with the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, is exploring how humans perceive emotions in vocalizations. The study asks human subjects (like you!) to listen to and rate different vocalizations on a chart based on how aroused you think the vocalization is and whether you think it’s positive or negative. I promise you will not hear a single note of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” Okay, only if you want to. The whole survey takes about a half hour, and as you go along, you’ll you get the swing of it. Check out the details below to participate.

You Can Participate in a Study of the Emotional Content of Sounds

Participants: Anybody in any country

Time commitment: Approximately 30 minutes

Project type: Listen to and rate different sounds

Project needs: Computer with headphones or decent quality speakers

Survey website: http://www.inflab.bme.hu/~viktor/soundrating/index.html

So don’t just stand there. Listen!

Additional Reading

Hecht, J. Dog Speak: The Sounds of Dogs. The Bark Magazine.

Nova. The Meaning of Dog Barks.

Yin, S. Barking Dogs: Noise or Communication? Dr. Yin’s Animal Behavior and Medicine Blog. Monday, November 15th, 2010.


Taylor et al. 2009. Context-related variation in the vocal growling behaviour of the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Ethology, 115, 905–915.

Faragó et al. 2010. ‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls. Animal Behaviour, 79, 917–925.

Yin and McCowan. 2004. Barking in domestic dogs: context specificity and individual identification. Animal Behaviour, 68, 343–355.


About the Author

Julie Hecht, MSc, is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She writes a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Dog Spies at Facebook and Twitter @DogSpies | DogSpies.com

This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.





Wellness: Food & Nutrition
The Gut: The Key to Health
Find the proper balance in the intestinal tract.
Gut is Key to Health

Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is quoted as saying, “bad digestion is at the root of all evil” and “death sits in the bowels.” What Hippocrates likely meant was that the GI tract, or “gut,” is responsible for much more than digesting food; it plays a vital role in creating and sustaining health. Nearly 2,500 years later, scientists are discovering that Hippocrates was right. You simply cannot have a “sick” gut and be truly healthy!

The “gut”, which is made up of the stomach, small intestine and colon (large intestine), is actually a complex microsystem of “good” bacteria, or microflora. While bacteria also live in our mouths, on our skin and in our urogenital tract, more than 70 percent take up residence in the mucosal tissue lining of the gut, which is known as the gut-associated lymphoid tissue, or GALT. The trillions of beneficial bacteria inside the gut comprise a metabolically active organ—the largest immune organ in the body—and are important for a variety of essential functions, including regulating digestion, producing and metabolizing vitamins and other trace nutrients, and protecting the body from infection.

The gut also contains pathogenic “bad” bacteria, such as E. coli. When the balance of good and bad bacteria goes awry, humans and animals can experience a myriad of digestive disturbances, including bloating, constipation or diarrhea, as well as abdominal cramping, surface erosions, and ulcers. But the relationship between gut bacteria and health extends far beyond the digestive system.

For example, gut microflora serves as a significant barrier to infection from outside pathogens, preventing unwanted invaders such as food toxins, toxic chemicals, bad bacteria and fungi from entering our systems. A condition called “leaky gut” arises when the integrity of the gut’s mucosal lining is compromised, causing it to become permeable, or “leaky.” When this occurs, unwanted molecules are allowed to pass through. Since the body recognizes these molecules as foreign, it attacks them. Science is now learning that “leaky gut” likely contributes to a variety of autoimmune diseases, including Type 1 diabetes and autoimmune thyroiditis.

Other conditions linked to imbalances in the gut’s bacterial ecosystem include:

  • Allergies
  • Arthritis
  • Autism
  • Behavioral problems
  • Colon cancer
  • Inflammation
  • Obesity

A recently released study by the Cleveland Clinic exemplifies the important role of gut bacteria. The study found that some gut bacteria produce a compound called trimethylamine- N-oxide, or TMAO, while digesting lecithin found in foods such as egg yolks, liver, beef, pork and wheat germ. The researchers also found that blood levels of TMAO predict heart attack, stroke and death—independent of other risk factors. The fact that gut bacteria can cause heart attack, stroke and death, even in otherwise “healthy” people, is a true testament to their importance!

Obviously, to create and maintain health, we want to keep the gut microflora in tip-top shape. But if the gut is teeming with trillions of good bacteria, what’s the problem?

Many environmental factors can disrupt gut bacteria, throwing the balance between good and bad bacteria out of whack, including:

  • Antibiotics
  • Introducing new foods too fast
  • Poor diet
  • Stress
  • Vaccination

Fortunately, you can help keep your pet’s gut in tip-top shape by giving him probiotics.

Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria. When ingested in sufficient numbers, probiotics colonize in the gut, thereby supplementing the existing beneficial microflora.

Probiotics can provide many health benefits in pets, including:

  • Aid in digestion
  • Assist with food transitioning
  • Boost the immune system
  • Help manage stress colitis
  • Prevent and manage diarrhea
  • Prevent overgrowth of “bad” bacteria in the gut
  • Promote overall intestinal health
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Replace “good” bacteria destroyed by antibiotics

But don’t just run out and buy any product labeled “probiotic”. The product you purchase should meet strict standards, including:

Contain live bacteria. The product is not a probiotic unless the bacteria are live.

Contain multiple bacterial strains. Different strains of bacteria exert different biological activities. Look for a product containing at least 10 different strains.

Is potent. When it comes to a probiotic, the more potent the better. While some products contain 1 billion beneficial bacteria per serving, I advise looking for a product containing at least 30 billion or more beneficial bacteria per serving.

Is pure. A probiotic is designed to increase gut health. The last thing you want is a product that contains artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, sugar, salt, corn, wheat, soy or other undesirable ingredients.

And please don’t share your probiotic with your pet. An animal’s intestinal tract contains species-specific microflora, so a probiotic that’s beneficial for you isn’t necessarily beneficial for your companion animal. Opt instead for a probiotic targeted specifically to your pet’s species.

Supplementing your companion animal’s diet with a probiotic is a simple, safe and effective way to optimize gut health. You might just be amazed at the positive improvements these “gut bugs” can make!

Wellness: Healthy Living
GI Involvement in Behaviorial Issues
Some Compulsive Disorders Point to the Gut
Dog looking away

Canine compulsive disorders (CCDs) take many forms and are generally considered to be behavioral issues. However, recent studies suggest that at least two of them—“excessive licking of surfaces” (ELS) and “fly-biting syndrome,” in which a dog appears to stare at something and suddenly snaps at it—may be related to underlying health issues. Both studies were conducted by researchers associated with the University of Montréal Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

The first set out to investigate surface-licking behaviors to see if there was a medical component: “The objectives of our prospective clinical study were to characterize ELS behavior in dogs and to examine the extent to which it may be a sign of an underlying gastrointestinal (GI) pathology as opposed to a primarily behavioral concern.”

Researchers looked at 19 dogs, 16 of whom exhibited this behavior daily. This group was compared with a control group of 10 healthy (i.e., non-ELS) dogs. Complete medical and behavioral histories were collected for all dogs. The medical evaluation revealed that 14 of the 19 ELS dogs had GI abnormalities; treatment of the underlying GI disorder resulted in significant improvement in a majority of dogs in the ELS group.

The second study examined seven dogs with a history of daily fly-biting behavior. As the researchers noted, “Fly-biting dogs are generally referred to neurologists or behaviorists because the abnormalities are often interpreted as focal seizures or as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).”

As in the ELS study, these dogs were given complete medical examinations and were filmed to determine if the behavior was perhaps more prevalent after eating. The video analyses revealed a significant finding: all of the dogs demonstrated head-raising and neck extension, which can be an indicator of esophageal discomfort, prior to fly-biting.

All of the dogs in this study were found to have a GI abnormality, and one was also diagnosed with Chiari malformation (a brain/skull disorder). The dogs were treated for their medical conditions, and four had complete resolutions of the fly-biting behavior. The authors of this study concluded, “The data indicate that fly-biting may be caused by an underlying medical disorder, GI disease being the most common.”

As Marty Goldstein, DVM, observed in a post related to this research, “These studies don’t mean that primary obsessive/compulsive behavioral issues don’t exist, because they do … [But] if you have a pet with obsessive/compulsive disorders, don’t jump to psychoactive medications before exploring the use of food-allergy testing, changes in diet, and digestive enzymes and probiotics that can repair a damaged GI tract.”

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Obama Opposes Breed-Specific Legislation
White House releases official statement

“We don’t support breed-specific legislation.” So begins an official statement from the White House. Breed-specific legislation includes any law or regulation that restricts which dogs people can have based on their breed. The most common breed to be banned is the pit bull. The statement goes on to mention research showing that breed-specific legislation is essentially ineffective at preventing dog bites and injuries, and that it is a waste of the public’s resources. The official statement is presumably a response to an online petition that requests a ban at the federal level on laws that target dogs based on their breed.

It has not been possible to determine accurately bite rates by breeds, and in the absence of reliable data, perceptions are often skewed towards whatever is reported in the media rather than the actual number of bites. At various times, certain breeds have had serious PR problems, and it changes over the years. Decades ago it was rottweilers and doberman pinschers who seemed to face the most discrimination. Now it’s pit bulls who are most often assumed by many to be dangerous just because of what they look like, and not based on any information about specific individuals and their behavior.

The statement from the White House supports the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation that in order to improve public safety, we are better off with a community-based approach to dog bite prevention. The laws about dangerous dogs that deal with individuals who have a history of aggressive behavior are far more sensible than bans on entire breeds of dogs. Dogs vary greatly in their behavior and that variation is substantial within all breeds.

Our society has come a long way in stopping discrimination against people based on appearance, origin and who they are related to. It’s encouraging that we are moving in that direction when it comes to dogs, too. I’m so pleased about this big step towards eliminating discriminatory legislation. What’s your take on it?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Interested in My Expertise
Boy, did I misread the situation!

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be really wrong about something. I’m not someone who always needs to be right, which is lucky, because I was amusingly off the mark this time.

We have several different mail carriers for the route on which I live, including some regular substitutes. I recognize them all, though our interactions are limited to the hello, how-are-you, and thank you sort of exchanges. Then, a little while back, I noticed that one of the mailmen was acting a bit odd around me. He hesitated when he saw me, sometimes looked down avoiding eye contact, and generally seemed a bit uncomfortable. He sometimes seemed embarrassed, but he also seemed to be staring at me in his mirror if I came out to get the mail after he passed.

I tried to convince myself that I was imagining it, but that didn’t work. I’m a trained behaviorist as well as a very social member of society, and something just wasn’t quite right. He seemed more interested in me than was appropriate, and he certainly knew where I lived. It was making me feel very uncomfortable.

Finally, one day when I was outside cooling down after a run, he pulled the mail truck over by where I was, looked right at me, and said, “Karen, I have a question for you.” I waited, feeling sure that this would not be good.

Then, he said, “Do you work with dogs?” When I said that I was a behaviorist and trainer, he asked if I would mind if he asked me a question, to which I agreed. The question was about a dog in his family who was very friendly, but who jumped up a lot during greetings, especially when anybody came through the front door. We talked for a bit about what he could do to change the dog’s behavior, and in the next week or two, we checked in about the dog’s progress, which was rapid.

From the day he asked me about the dog, our interactions returned to being normal—friendly and relaxed. Here I thought something sinister was going on, when he simply wanted to ask me about his dog, but clearly felt unsure about whether he should. (It’s surely the case that because they see the sort of mail we receive, all of our mail carriers know way more about us than we know about them!)

He knew he needed help, but seemed unsure about asking for it from someone on his route. I love that he wanted to improve his dog’s behavior and I love that his dog is doing so well. Most of all, I love that I was so spectacularly wrong.

News: Editors
Arizona Sheepdog
A Video Pick of the Week

I was rereading John Pilley’s Chaser, a must-read book about his dog, Chaser, the Border Collie who learned to distinguish over 1000 words. One of the aspects of the book I really enjoyed was his appreciation for Border Collie lore, with a nod to others, like Arthur Allen, the “grandfather of Border Collies,” who wrote the seminal Border Collies in America and went on to “star” in a 1955 Disney movie, Arizona Sheepdog. Pilley mentioned that it’s now available on YouTube, so I just watched it and want to recommend it to every dog lover. It’s my video “pick” of the week!

Granted it is a “staged” Disney film but what Nick and Rock, Allen’s dogs do on this film cannot be directed.  It was stunning to see how Nick herds a Navajo child’s pet chipmunk and then goes on to rescue sheep that have fallen into a fast moving river. These are amazing dogs who demonstrate that not only can they problem solve without supervision but they also work cooperatively with each other. This short film is a testament to Allen who has said, “I like a dog that is an individualist; one who thinks for himself and will act without orders.” As the film narrator says, Allen had no doubt that Nick would do his job and bring the sheep back to their flock. That is what they expected he would do and he did it. See it for yourself and let me know what you think.


Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Understanding Dogs
Unexpected help with cultural adjustment

I am so grateful for the help a couple of dogs recently gave me in the middle of a period of cultural adjustment. This week, my family traveled to Costa Rica, where we will spend the next four months. I love this country, having spent close to a year here over the course of five previous trips. I speak Spanish, but it does not feel at all like using my native language of English, which is effortless and easy. (Hopefully no editors who have ever worked with me will be surprised to read that I consider myself so proficient in English, but that’s a whole different issue.) After 36 hours of speaking Spanish and translating for my husband and kids who are learning Spanish but remain less comfortable with the language, I was exhausted.

We were outside speaking with our neighbor Eduardo when I realized my bilingual brain needed a break. Just then, a couple of dogs from the neighborhood started to play together, and we all paused to watch them. They are small dogs of about 15 pounds, very peppy and extremely playful. They were leaping on one another, playing chase, taking turns in their roles, pausing frequently, performing plenty of play bows and using other play signals, all while maintaining a low and constant level of arousal. It was the kind of beautifully appropriate play session that anyone who has ever taught a puppy class would be ecstatic to observe.

When the dogs came over to me, I was able to interact with them just as I do with dogs anywhere. They responded to the way my body leaned, the tone of my voice, my posture, my energy level, and the direction I moved. The familiarity and lack of uncertainty were exhilarating. I always enjoy meeting friendly new dogs, but in this case, there was an extra perk. I understood what was going on and it was easy to observe and react appropriately. My brain was not translating, and I was not guessing or using context to fill in gaps. I was simply interacting with some new friends.

I’m fond of saying that I understand dogs, but that “canine” is definitely not my first language, which simply means that I’m aware that only dogs can understand dogs as native speakers. And yet, in that moment, I felt more comfortable with the ease of communication with canines than with people in a language other than English. It was such a joy to be with dogs, with whom I am so comfortable and so familiar. It was a surprising gift that these dogs gave to me as I adjust to life in a foreign country. I often find that when I am tired, I am only truly able to converse with ease in my native language, but dog “language” is apparently an exception. Hallelujah for that!

Sometimes we know when dogs will help us feel better and we even expect it: When we are heartbroken but we know that they still love us. When we have a bad day at work and we get to come home to them. When we head out to walk them because it’s the right thing to do, but being out does us every bit as much good. Yet the unexpected times that dogs give us a little lift are some of the best simply because they blindside us. How have dogs unexpectedly helped make you feel better?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Early to Rise
Many dogs love the morning

It’s typical to suffer some sleep deprivation when living with a puppy, but it’s not only young dogs who encourage people to start the day earlier than we might like. A lot of dogs wake up early, ready to begin the day’s adventures at first light.

Puppies, and some of the older dogs, too, simply need to relieve themselves, but others are peppy and ready to go without any such bathroom urgency. Of course, many of these dogs have ample time in their schedules for daily naps, so there are well rested and refreshed when many people would still prefer some extra Zs.

With training, lots of dogs learn that they will not be going outside at dawn and must amuse themselves or simply wait until the humans have arisen on their own, or at least with the help of their alarm clock. A few pester people by jumping on the bed, licking faces, barking, whining, or otherwise failing to allow the people to sleep in.

I’ve only ever had one dog who was not naturally an early riser. When I woke up to go to work or out for a run, he was dragging. As I got ready to take him out, he would yawn, stretch, and look at me pathetically as he lumbered over to the door. It required encouragement to get him going on the days I was up early, but it was delightful on the days I slept in. It was such a pleasure to sleep late knowing that my dog was not waiting eagerly for the day to begin or crossing his paws in desperation as I snoozed. On weekend mornings, we both happily began the day in a leisurely way. He was rare in that way. I appreciated that trait then, and remember it fondly now.

How early does your dog wake up to greet you and greet the day, and what tactics are used to convince you to haul yourself out of bed prematurely?

News: Guest Posts
How to Teach Language to Your Dog

AFTER A LONG DAY of being a dog, no dog in existence has ever curled up on a comfy couch to settle in with a good book. Dogs just don’t roll like that. But that shouldn’t imply that human words don’t or can’t have meaning for dogs.

Chaser, a Border Collie from South Carolina, first entered the news in 2011 when a Behavioral Processes paper reported she had learned and retained the distinct names of over 1,000 objects. But that’s not all. When tested on the ability to associate a novel word with an unfamiliar item, she could do that, too. She also learned that different objects fell into different categories: certain things are general “toys,” while others are the more specific “Frisbees” and, of course, there are many, many exciting “balls.” She differentiates between object labels and action commands, interpreting “fetch sock” as two separate words, not as the single phrase “fetchsock.”

Fast forward two years. Chaser and her owner and trainer Dr. John Pilley, an emeritus professor of psychology at Wofford College, appeared again in a scientific journal. This time, the study highlighted Chaser’s attention to the syntactical relationships between words, for example, differentiating “to ball take Frisbee” from “to Frisbee take ball.”

I’ve been keeping an eye on Chaser, and I’ve been keeping an eye on Rico, Sofia, Bailey, Paddy and Betsy, all companion dogs whose way with human language has been reported in scientific journals. Most media reports tend to focus on outcomes: what these dogs can — or can’t — do with our words. But I think these reports are missing the point. Learning the names of over 1,000 words doesn’t just happen overnight. What does the behind-the-scenes learning and training look like? How did Chaser develop this intimate relationship with human language?

Recently, I had the pleasure of making Chaser and John Pilley’s acquaintance when they visited New York City for their forthcoming book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, out 10.29.13 (Facebook/Twitter). I sat down with Pilley to discuss Chaser’s initial training and learning and to pose questions offered up by readers of Dog Spies (Twitter /Facebook) and Do You Believe in Dog? (Twitter /Facebook). Pilley did most of the talking, and Chaser contributed too, periodically bringing me a Frisbee and sticks of various sizes to throw. As Pilley says, “Learning builds on learning,” so here’s what I learned from our conversation about the early building blocks of Chaser’s education:

Chaser is known for her extensive vocabulary. Can you walk us through how she came to learn the names of over 1,000 different objects?

Because learning depends upon learning, it helped to have her first learn certain simple behaviors, most of which were obedience behaviors like sit, stand, stay, and drop. She also learned herding commands like ‘way to me,’ ‘come by,‘ ‘there,’ ‘freeze,’ ‘walk,’ ‘go out,’ and ‘crawl’ among others. I used positive reinforcement, and in the beginning, I used food when she came to me. I gradually phased out the food.

When I started teaching the name of objects, I said, ‘Watch Pop Pop’ and would show her the object and say, ‘This is Frisbee,’ and I would hide the object just two feet away, so at that point, it wasn’t really hidden. When she went looking for it, I would keep saying, ‘Find Frisbee, find Frisbee,’ and when she mouthed it I would say, ‘Good dog! Good dog!’ Then we made it more difficult, and I would really hide it out of her sight.

That was the procedure. A couple of times a day, I would play with her with that object for five minutes or so. No other objects would be on the floor, and we would play with that object, and I would profusely repeat the name of that object between 20-40 times in each session. ‘Find Santa Claus, Find Santa Claus,’ and then, ‘Good dog! Good dog!’ when she mouthed it. That was the first step in teaching her the names of proper nouns.

After the first object was taught, it was set aside, and we worked on another one. She always learned one object at a time, a successive method of teaching. Before Chaser, we had tried a simultaneous method of teaching with other dogs [presenting two objects at a time], and that didn’t work.

As Chaser learned the names of different objects, how did you test what Chaser was learning? Did you have a way to assess her initial and long-term memory?

After a few weeks, it was time to test Chaser. The criteria for learning was that she had to successfully select a particular object out of 8 other objects. My criteria was not just that one test. We replicated it at least 8 times, and the items surrounding the object of interest would be different from what she had seen in earlier presentations. She had to be successful in each of those independent sessions 8 times in a row. If she was successful on the first 6 but missed on the 7th, I stopped the testing and put the object aside and worked with it some more.Then I would start the testing some more.

In addition to testing her initial learning of objects, each month we tested her memory on all of the objects that she had learned up to that point. We did it in sets of 20. I put 20 objects on the floor, using only objects which she had shown initial learning, and we asked Chaser to retrieve each of the 20 objects. Over the course of 3 years of teaching, Chaser was successful in retrieving 90% of the objects correctly. Most of the time she retrieved 100% of the objects and other times 95%, but it never got below 90%. If she was not successful, I put that object aside for additional training. The reason we tested her each month was we wanted to make sure that she was not learning new objects to replace an old object. We wanted to be sure that there was complete retention in the long term.

How about grammar? What were the general training and testing procedures?

Chaser initially learned actions independent of specific objects. I might be holding a piece of food, and I would say, ‘Take.’ Over time, she learned the three commands, ‘take,’ ‘paw,’ and ‘nose’ and they were later applied to different objects. The first step in grammar is two elements like, ‘Take Lamb,’ and Chaser demonstrated that each word had an independent meaning. I like to say that learning builds on learning. Not until she learned the two elements should she learn three elements. When she heard the phrase, ‘Take ball to Frisbee,’ she was successful three fourths of the time. But she seemed to act on the last thing she heard, so we changed the expression to ‘To ball take Frisbee.’ We also tested the inverse, ‘To Frisbee take ball.’ This work tests her syntax, her understanding of the rule. When we invert it, we’re demonstrating semantics, that she actually understands each of those components of the sentence and the different meanings of the words.

Can you talk about the use of play in Chaser’s learning and training?

Tension, fear and anxiety inhibit creative learning, and play and tension are incompatible. During play, creative learning can take place. If you are going for complex learning, you are not going to get any learning with tension and anxiety; I’ve learned that in over 30 years of teaching. One of the things that runs throughout the entire book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, is that play is one of the secrets of Chaser’s learning.

Most people don’t explicitly teach their dog words, yet they think that the dog understands many words. Do you think this assumption could ever be problematic?

As long as this doesn’t result in some kind of negative response like criticism or punishing the dog, it could be innocuous. It could have a negative impact on the dog if someone thinks a dog should know a word or phrase and holds it against the dog if he doesn’t seem to be performing. The best and simplest assumption is that if a dog is not emitting a behavior, then the dog might not understand.

Does knowing words and syntax help Chaser have a “happier” life with humans?

I think when you have more understanding, there is better communication and thereby more happiness.

What do you hope people take away from Chaser’s story?

The big thing is that Chaser is not special, and that anybody’s dog is smarter than he or she thinks. I’m hoping people will work with their dogs, of course teaching them words, but also getting to know their dogs. Find out what makes your dog happy, and give your dog opportunities to explore its interests.


Related Reading

Hecht, J. 2012. Say What? Do Dogs Understand Our Words? The Bark Magazine

Goldman, J. Monday Pets: How Do Dogs Learn New Words? Scientific American. May 10, 2010

Pilley, J.W. with Hilary Hinzmann. Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. October 2013 Release


Pilley, J.W., and A.K. Reid. 2011. Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents. Behavioural Processes 86: 184–195.

Pilley, J.W. 2013. Border collie comprehends sentences containing a prepositional object, verb and direct object. Learning and Motivation. Published online May 13, 2013.


This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The Animal Behavior Society Conference
Many presentations featured dogs

Last week, the Animal Behavior Society conference was held in Boulder, Colorado and was attended by hundreds of scientists. Besides being the 50th annual meeting, this conference was notable because of the strong representation by people who study dogs or work with them in other ways.

I first attended an Animal Behavior Society conference in 1994 and I remember no talks or posters about our best friends. Most talks were about insects, fish, and birds, all of which have long been subjects of study in the field of animal behavior. Studying dogs was not respected at that time and many people considered that research on the species was not applicable to science in general because dogs didn’t have a natural habitat other than living with people. I hadn’t started working with dogs professionally yet, and my talk on my graduate research was called “Nest Site Selection by a Member of a Wasp-Wasp Nesting Association.” Oh, how times have changed.

At this conference, dozens of people presented work, whether applied or basic, about dogs, including 21 Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, or CAABs. (The certification is available to people with PhDs who work in applied animal behavior and have a number of other qualifications. There are currently about 50 of us CAABs.) This conference had more presentations about dogs than any previous ones. There were a number of interesting talks and posters about dogs including:

Differences in social and cognitive behavior between congenitally deaf and hearing dogs

The black dog syndrome: Factors influencing difficulty of canine adoptions

Social bonds between humans and their “best friends”

Improving enrichment for shelter dogs by changing human behavior

Are dogs exhibiting separation related problems more sensitive to social reinforcement?

Do puzzle toys have long-term benefits on canine cognitive functioning?

Inter-dog aggression in the home environment: A behavior modification case study

A comparison of the cognitive development of adolescent dogs

Successful treatment of canine human-directed resource guarding with multiple triggers

I loved attending talks about a variety of species, but seeing how much change there has been in the scientific community’s views about dogs over the last 20 years made this conference extra special.