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How Much Human Speech do Dogs Understand?
Both Ends of the Leash: Walking the Talk
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Alex, the world’s most famous African Grey parrot, died September 6, 2007, and the world is a sadder place for it.

You may be wondering why a column about dog behavior would begin with a memorial to a parrot, but there is an important connection between Alex’s behavior and that of your dog. It was Alex, and his human, Irene Pepperberg, who stretched our understanding of what goes on in the minds of nonhuman animals, including the furry best friend lying at your feet.

When, in 1977, Pepperberg began teaching Alex to use words to communicate, the consensus was that animals could be taught to associate sounds with objects (“Go get your ball,”) but not concepts. Concepts are abstractions that live only inside your brain. For example, try picking up a “bigger,” or giving someone a “different” as a birthday present.

The argument used to be that nonhuman animals could only respond to something directly in front of them, and weren’t capable of the kind of cognitive gymnastics that abstractions require. However, Pepperberg’s research taught us that not only could Alex use words to label an object’s shape, form and color (“Alex, pick up the blue triangle out of all the other objects on the tray.”), he had little trouble grasping concepts like “different” and “bigger” (“Alex, what color is the object that is shaped differently from all the rest?”).

Alex’s thought processes, and the way he communicated them, went far beyond answering questions put to him during his training sessions. One day, while looking in the mirror, Alex said, “What color?” Mind you, Alex had been trained to answer questions, not ask them. When the surprised trainers answered, “grey,” Alex was then able to identify other grey objects.

That wasn’t the only time Alex surprised his handlers. I am still amused by a video I saw of Alex working with an impatient trainer. After several interactions, clearly frustrating for person and parrot alike, Alex belted out, in a startlingly clear Bronx accent, “Go away!” But the bird’s most compelling vocalization took place when Pepperberg had to leave him alone, for the first time, at a veterinary clinic. As she walked away, Alex said in a soft and quiet voice, “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.” (This knowledge has made leaving my dogs at a vet clinic a hundred times harder for me, and I pass it along to you with my own soft and quiet, “I’m sorry.” Ignorance indeed can be bliss.)

When Pepperberg first began working with Alex, there were suggestions that certain other animals could understand simple concepts, but it’s only been during the last 20 years that this issue has gotten the attention it deserves. We’ve found that many animals—including rats, pigeons and a surprising star in cognitive research, the octopus (honest)—can functionally use concepts like “different” and “bigger.”

But what about our dogs? If an octopus can understand the concept “different,” surely our dogs can too. Or can they? Until very recently, research on our best friends has lagged behind that on primates and laboratory rats; apparently, “familiarity breeds contempt” in science as well as in the rest of life. But dogs are finally becoming hot topics in cognitive research—check out, for example, recent issues of the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Here’s a little about what we’ve learned so far. Research confirms that dogs can also functionally use concepts like “larger” and “different.”* What’s more, in certain contexts, they can also be taught a more complicated procedure called “delayed non-matching to sample.” Here’s how the experiment works: The dog is presented with an object that has a piece of food underneath. He’s allowed to move the object and get the food. Then, after a delay of a varying amount of time, say, 10 seconds, the dog is presented with two objects. One item is the same as before, the other is different. The “right” choice is the different object.

When researchers first conducted the study, the dogs failed miserably. After hundreds of trials, the dogs were still unable to  identify the different object. In comparison, rhesus monkeys figured it out pretty quickly. But when the researchers changed the procedure and asked the dogs to choose an object in a different location, our best friends turned into academic stars, getting the answer right 90 percent of the time—even after waiting 20 seconds between presentations.

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Submitted by Anonymous | October 12 2012 |

I came across this article because I believe my chihuahua is exceptionally intelligent. I've had dogs my entire life, and he is unlike any dog I have ever met. I believe he understands "other", or alternate, as a concept rather than just a word - among other things.

Initially, we thought he only understood the command "Go the other way." as it relates to rolling over. We would ask him to roll over, then we would ask him to go the other way and he would.

Now, he has been able to apply the concept of "other" to various commands. For instance, when we are walking him and he finds his leash tangled around a post, we can ask him to "Go the other way." and he walk around the post the opposite way until he is freed. He also applies this concept to sides of a door. Being that he is so little, when we come into the apartment building after a walk we tell him to "move over", so he isn't right in front of the door in case someone were to open it. Sometimes he goes to the wrong side of the crack in the wall, in which case we tell him to "Go to the other side." and he moves over to the other side of the crack.

I have yet to see another dog grasp a concept such as "other" in the way it appears he has done. This is the same dog that will not scratch his water bowl if he is out and we have not noticed, he will "bring us" to a water bottle or even the bath tub faucet and "ask" for more water.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 26 2013 |

Dear Patricia B. McConnell,

How Much Human Speech do Dogs Understand? I think it depends on the age. I started talking to my baby girl (dog) when she was two weeks old. Holding up to my face with one hand gently talking to her then cuddling her as she grew bigger and bigger. (I thought she was one breed of dog but later found out she is a fox hound.) She is a little over two years old now and she just knows everything I think beforehand by the movement of my eyes, facial expressions and body movements. She talks to me with many different sounds that I can recognize that lets me know what she wants. I also smiled throughout my life with her and funny thing is she smiles sometimes. Mimic's me and has a voice of her own. It's astounding. She is really smart! And, a great protector. She senses by emotions which determines her outlook on life.:) I love her and she loves me! I'm so happy I could cry. Thank you for the article.

Submitted by Sally | July 3 2013 |

Dogs are, at least two of the dogs I have had, much more able to comprehend words (not just words but ideas) than they are given credit for. The dog I currently have knows over 1000 words, many of them fairly sophisticated words. It is mostly a matter of how they are taught (not that this dog is not also pretty smart). I think the notion that language is only the province of the human species needs to be reworked, at least as far as dogs are concerned, because however differently their brains are structured, these two dogs have been quite caoabke of understanding orally spoken language--with training. They just have not had as much of the capacity for passive assimilation of language as a young child would.

I also have doubts about some other assertions made about the differences between dogs and humans. My dog does have emotions, appreciates classical music, seems to me to be able to feel guilt and to be aware of the passing of time. Whether I have a doggy "Einstein" here is something I do not know for sure, but he is not a Border Collie, although he is a very attentive dog.

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