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How Much Human Speech do Dogs Understand?

So, here’s where musings about cognition leave the land of the research lab and settle into your living room. Of the words you use (whether they reference actions, objects or concepts), how many do you think your dog understands? The answer may be more complicated than we think. Let me illustrate with a story:

Last night, as we have for many nights, my young Border Collie, Will, and I worked on his ability to label objects with names. He is the fastest canine learner I’ve ever had— and that’s saying something, since I’ve had many other dogs, seven of them Border Collies. This dog learned to lie down on his side for acupuncture in less than five minutes. He learned to stretch out his foreleg on cue in less time than I can write about it. I can ask him to “Go get your toy,” five minutes after he has dropped it 200 yards away and he will retrieve it. In short, he’s one of those “oh-wow” dogs who make training look easy.

But when I ask him to pick out his “ring,” or his “ball,” he looks like a dunce. For three weeks, I’ve reinforced him for touching a toy after I’ve said its name. I started with one object at a time, saying the name “ring” or “ball” and reinforcing a correct response with treats or play. I’ve done that hundreds of times, and if the only toy visible is the one I ask for, he’s—not surprisingly!—always right. Recently, I’ve been placing two objects on the floor and asking for just one of them. At first, I make the right choice easy by placing it close to him, while the “wrong” object is farther away. But as soon as Will has a real choice, his accuracy plummets and his responses become random. He enthusiastically chooses one, and then deflates when I slowly shake my head no. Over and over, he desperately tries to figure out what I want him to do. For a while, he was choosing the last location reinforced. When he realized that wasn’t it, he lay with his head down on his paws.

I didn’t think teaching him “ball” and “ring” would be that hard. After all, when I say, “Get your toy,” he picks up an object without hesitation. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve known for years that dogs can use sounds to label objects (you might well have a dog who knows his ball from his tug toy). Rico, the famous European Border Collie, not only knows the names of more than 200 objects, he could to match an unfamiliar name with an unfamiliar object in a carefully controlled experiment. How could my brilliant little dog be such a slow learner?

I think Will’s struggle relates to concepts. Until I began to ask him to choose one toy over the other, the sounds I made to Will had always been associated with actions: Lie down. Walk up (on sheep). Wait. Bow. Get your toy (go pick up something). It looked as though he understood that “toy” referred to his play objects—except when I experimented and said, “Go get your —” and he immediately picked up the closest object. When I asked him to “Go get your wallaby,” he hesitated a moment, and then picked up the closest toy.
Will has also heard me repeatedly say in a happy, animated voice, “Where’s Jim?” I’ve enthusiastically asked that question every time our mutually favorite guy arrives at the farm. Recently, I asked “Where’s Jim?” while Jim was sitting on the couch beside us. You guessed it: Will ran to the window and danced around with excitement. So what initially appeared to be an understanding of the names of things is really more about associating the sounds I make with actions he should take.

Naming seems like such a simple concept, yet many of us can remember the scene in the movie Helen Keller, when, after infinite periods of frustration, Helen finally realizes that the sign she is being taught stands for the cold water running over her hand. Another riveting story is told in the book A Man Without Words, by Susan Schaller. She describes a deaf man who had never been taught even the most basic communication skills bursting into tears when he first realizes that objects could be labeled, and signs could be used to converse with others about those objects.

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