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Do Dogs Understand Our Words?

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Chaser puts the icing on the cake when she assigns objects to different categories based on their physical properties; some are “toys,” others are “Frisbees” and, of course, there are “balls.” Chaser takes her cue from Alex, Irene Pepperberg’s African Grey Parrot, who also learned categories like color, shape and material, and differentiated which trait was the same or different.

This all seems quite extraordinary, but nothing comes free of controversy. Do dogs like Chaser and Sofia use and understand language the same way humans do, or are they merely welltrained? For example, some researchers are not certain that dogs actually “fast map”; dogs might be doing something that simply looks like “fast mapping” from the outside. Regardless, it does seem as though these dogs have a conception of objects and actions. Patricia McConnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and beloved Bark columnist, agrees. “Understanding requires that we share the same reference — that we have the same construct of an object or an action. For some dogs, it seems like they do.” Pilley concurs. “When an object, such as a toy, is held before Chaser and a verbal label is given to that object, Chaser understands that the verbal label refers to that object.”

In her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz reminds us that even if these are the only dogs in the world capable of using words this way, it allows us to see that a “dog’s cognitive equipment is good enough to understand language in the right context.” This body of research indicates what is possible, not necessarily what most dogs do every day.

Who Are You Living With?
Whether you have a Chaser or a Rico in your home might largely depend on you. As Fischer explains, “A dog’s use of human language depends very much on the willingness of the owner to establish a verbal relationship, to establish links between words and particular meanings.” Fischer is referring to motivation in both the human and the dog. Ramos and her colleagues trained and tested Sofia two to three times a day, three to six times a week. When Pilley, who doubles as researcher and Chaser’s owner, began training Chaser to identify objects at five months of age, Pilley repeated object names 20 to 40 times each session to make sure she got it.

Like Rocky Balboa preparing for his climactic showdown, these dogs are highly motivated. Fischer notes, “Rico was eager and hard working. You’d have to tell him, ‘That’s enough. Get something to drink. Take a rest.’” Chaser is similar, says Pilley. “She has two states—highly, highly active and recuperating and resting.”

Denise Fenzi, a professional dog trainer from Woodside, Calif., who specializes in a variety of dog sports, reminds us that this type of motivation is not necessarily the norm. “Not all dogs share this attention to words. Even in my dogs [all of whom are the same breed], there is a huge difference in ability to verbally process. I didn’t train them differently. It’s just easier for one to quickly get words.”

Training Matters
The way dogs learn words might be the biggest piece of the puzzle. McConnell finds, “Word learning might depend upon how words are first introduced. The guardians who explicitly differentiate words, teaching, ‘Get your Greenie! Get your ball,’ often have the dogs with big vocabularies. On the other hand, my own dog Willie was given verbal cues for years that stood for actions rather than objects. When I tried to teach him that words could refer to objects he was completely confused.”

What dogs are able to do with language could also be explained by their tutelage. If dogs don’t learn to attach a variety of different actions to a variety of objects, it might be harder for them in the long run to be flexible with human language. Susanne Grassmann, a developmental psychologist and psycholinguist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands explains, “Chaser was trained to do different things with different objects, and she differentiates between what is the object label and what is the action command, meaning what to do with that object.”

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