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JoAnna Lou
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Fetching From A Photo
Research shows Border Collies may understand how humans communicate.
A Border Collie in the study searches for the matching toy.

From rolling over to fetching the remote, I’ve always been impressed by the canine ability and willingness to learn whatever humans want to teach them. When I attended ClickerExpo in March, I was amazed to see videos of a shelter dog learning concepts such as bigger versus smaller and guide dogs training to develop other-awareness, the skill needed to understand if a doorway is too low for their handler to walk through.

A month ago, I wrote of my excitement that Harvard University’s new Canine Cognition Laboratory would be studying these types of complex behaviors. While I wait for the initial findings to be posted, I was eager to read about similar research, though on a much smaller scale, led by Juliane Kaminski.

In the study, five Border Collies were taught to fetch a toy from another room when shown a full-size or miniature replica, often called “matching to sample.” Two dogs were even able to complete the task when shown a photograph of the toy. What makes this research remarkable is that, according to the article, earlier studies of chimpanzees and dolphins showed that these animals had difficulty retrieving matching objects.

Kaminski believes that this may be attributed to the fact that dogs have lived alongside people for thousands of years. It’s possible that, as a result, dogs have evolved a feel for how people communicate. 

Although it's hard to draw any conclusions from this small study, it's nonetheless remarkable and I look forward to seeing larger research on this topic.

Kaminski's full length study will be published in an upcoming issue of Developmental Science.

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Photo by Juliane Kaminski.

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