Researchers at South Carolina’s Wofford College have announced that a Border Collie has been trained to identify over 1,000 objects. Surprisingly, the clever dog, “Chaser”, can also differentiate between objects and actions involving them – grasping, in essence, the concept of nouns and verbs!
Surpassing Her “Trainers”
Summarized in a recent Behavioral Processes article, the Border Collie experiments are expected to shed light on just what it is that dogs understand when we speak to them. The researchers (or ethologists, as animal behavior specialists are known) pointed out that they stopped introducing new objects at 1,022 due to time constraints – Chaser seemed willing and able to learn more. In fact, her ability to remember all the objects seemed to exceed that of her human trainers!
Forming New Thoughts
Chaser was also taught a number of commands, such as “get”, “touch with nose” and “push”. The researchers then mixed random combinations of commands and objects, i.e. “push rabbit”, “get rabbit”, “touch ball with nose” without teaching those combinations to Chaser. The dog performed perfectly each time…usually on the first try. This showed that Chaser could distinguish between an action or verb (the command) and a noun (the object).
Most astonishing is the fact that the dog could connect the 2 concepts and perform a new action. For example, Chaser had been taught to recognize the words “push” and “rabbit”, but not “push rabbit”…but when instructed to “push rabbit”, she formed a new concept and understood what to do!
Learning by Exclusion – a “First”
All sorts of animals, insects included, are able to learn by association, even if not at Chaser’s impressive level. For example, if you feed your tropical fish after turning on their aquarium light, they will soon rise to the surface when the light goes on; eventually they will do so even when you merely approach the tank.
Chaser proved, likely for the first time, that at least some dogs can learn by exclusion – correctly retrieving an item when she was told not to fetch others near it!
Next: Border Collies, Other Dogs and Wolves
Future work will focus on determining whether Chaser’s impressive abilities are specific to her breed. Border Collies have had a long history of working side-by-side with people, and of having to learn complicated tasks (sheep herding) via hand signs or whistles from their owners.
Studies have shown that Gray Wolves (which are likely the same species as dogs, it now seems) and feral Dingoes are better equipped to solve problems than are domestic dogs. Dogs, on the other hand, have evolved abilities to use humans to meet their needs and to learn by watching their owners’ reactions (please see article below).
Video of Chaser in action
Wofford College report on the Chaser experiments
Liver Border Collie image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted from flickr by Pharaoh Hound and John Haslam
Border Collie with Sheep image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by C. Macmillan