Ramos notes that Sofia’s relationship with certain objects was a bit different. “Throughout the training, we always paired ‘stick’ with ‘point.’ As a result, it was difficult for her to perform any other action toward the stick beside ‘point.’ If we had trained her ‘stick: sit,’ ‘stick: point’ and ‘stick: fetch,’ she would have learned that multiple actions can be directed toward the stick, and her response would probably be different. For example, when presented with a novel object, such as a toy bear, she could direct a number of different actions toward the bear, but there was a reluctance to change her action towards the stick, which could have to do with the rigidity of training.”
And even if you do explicitly teach that different words have different meanings, it can be challenging. Ramos found that learning the names of objects is not always easy for dogs. “It was hard for Sofia to learn to discriminate the names of her first two objects, but after the initial discrimination, it was like she learned to learn. It became easier,” recalls Ramos.
“Because this type of learning can be challenging, service dogs [who have little margin for error] are taught a limited, but instrumental, set of words,” explains Kate Schroer-Shepord, a qualified guide dog instructor at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
Pilley found that dogs’ success at object learning depended upon the training method used. “When we put two objects on the floor and asked dogs to retrieve each object by name, they couldn’t do it; simultaneous discrimination wasn’t working. Instead, Chaser was able to learn the names of objects through successive discrimination. She would play with one object in each training session, and through play, the object assumed value. We’d name the object, hide it and ask her to find it. Discrimination testing between the names of different objects occurred later.”
Words or Melody?
Are these just “type-A” dogs whose accomplishments cannot easily be replicated? After all, most dogs aren’t explicitly taught words as described above, yet they interact with us talkers in ways that make us feel like we’re on the same page. “Dinnertime!” “Wanna go for a walk?” “Where’s Dad?” elicit an appropriate “bouncing dog” response. But are most dogs attending to our actual words, or are other factors at play?
Dogs derive an enormous amount of information from contextual cues, particularly our body movements as well as tone and “prosody” — the rhythm, stress and intonation of our speech. “When people talk to dogs, dogs pay attention to the melody and the mood to predict what is happening or what will happen next,” explains Fischer.
Fenzi says that dogs can just as easily respond to gibberish as to real English words; “I could go through every level of AKC obedience from the bottom to the top saying, ‘Kaboola,’ and the dog could succeed.” In many cases, dogs may be understanding tone rather than individual words.
“One of the most notable differences between novices and professional trainers is the ability to modulate the prosodic features of their speech,” notes McConnell. “The pros learn to keep problematic emotions out of their verbal cues, like nervousness in a competition, and to use prosody to their advantage when it’s advantageous, for example, to calm a dog down or to motivate him to speed up.”
In another study, Ramos explored whether, when taken out of context, dogs knew the words relating to toys they were thought to know. Most did not, much to the surprise of the owners. When the verbal skills of Fellow, a performing German Shepherd from the 1920s, were tested outside their customary contexts, Fellow knew only some of the words and actions that his owners thought he understood.
While many owners deem their dogs to be word-savvy, their reports tell a different story. The Pongrácz survey found that many words and phrases were executed only in contextually adequate situations (for example, saying “bedtime” when it’s dark and you’re in your pajamas rather than at noon when you’re in your work clothes). As with Fellow, this suggests dogs might not be attending to only words themselves.