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
Domestication’s Effect on Dog Brains
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
Chaser is awesome!
I think Chaser is smarter than a few people I know.
Hello Alan, Frank Indiviglio here.
Thanks for your interest in our blog. Well put! I felt the same after learning about that dog!
Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.
Any dog can be taught an amazing number of verbs and nouns according to California trainer Teresa Gary. When Gary began working with rescue dogs, she found that one of the biggest problems the lack of a consistent method of communication with dogs that were constantly being shifted from volunteers to trainers at the rescue or humane organization and then to a new family. Not all people use hand signals or clickers in the same way, so Gary began using words to identify behaviors and to tell the dogs what to expect, such as brushing or having their feet handled, or their mouth examined. She used words instead of other methods to tell the dog to “sit,” “leave it,” get “off,” “fetch,”
“load” in the car, etc. After she taught the words to dog, she then taught the handlers at the shelter and the new adoptive pet parents. Voila! Inconsistencies vanished. The dogs understood what was expected, and eveyone involved was happier.
Gary recommends starting with 50 basic words and progressing from there to teaching to your dog to recognize her toys, learn specific behaviors you want her to know, and more. The possibilities are endless.
The problem most people have in communicating with their pet is the failure to use the same word all the time, keep the words clear and simple, try not to use two words that sound almost alike, and don’t put the words into a complex sentence.
Hello Betty, Frank Indiviglio here.
Thanks for the interesting feedback. Good points…dogs and many other animals are so perceptive that often pick up on things we are not aware of, and this can confuse the training process. Remember the famous counting horse…names and all escape me, but the animal counted and did simple math problems very accurately (counted by tapping with hoof); was a real sensation. Finally it was discovered that the owner had been unwittingly making a certain head movement/nod as the horse reached the proper answer; owner wasn’t trying to coach horse, but hors picked up on his very subtle clues.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio
I have a Border Collie. He is an incredibly smart, sweet, loveable Dog. The one thing about Him though, is that he requires a lot of attention.
Hello Jim, Frank Indiviglio here.
Thanks for your interest in our blog. I’m sure he does! I’ve worked with all sorts of animals in zoos, and same seems to hold true across the board– i.e. parrots as compared to finches, elephants vs porcupines, etc!
Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.