Who remembers Chaser, the border collie who learned English grammar? Chaser’s first moment of fame came from the recognition that she knew the names of more than 1,000 toys. Her dad, Dr. John Pilley, meticulously documented her training. He then demonstrated that she could apply different verbs to each toy (e.g., bring, take, give) and that she knew the difference between the object of a sentence and the indirect object, a mastery of English grammar that puts many high school grads to shame.
In the years since Chaser’s accomplishments became known, other dogs have demonstrated proficiency in learning names of objects and showing basic linguistic comprehension.
But not, apparently, in Hungary.
Bizarrely, a dog cognition researcher at a well-known university — whose dog cognition group has published reams of amazing research — found that the dogs she worked with could not learn any words.
Dr. Claudia Fugazza told Modern Dog: “We started investigating and we found that irrespective of the age when you start training, most dogs do not learn the name of objects. We trained a group of dogs very intensively for three months—we included a group of puppies around three months old and a group of adult dogs—and none of them could learn any words.”
I find that strange because every dog I have ever lived with understood many, many words. Some in two languages. Even without any training at all — simply as a byproduct of living with humans who used words and phrases over and over.
“Want to go for a walk?”
“Who wants a cookie?”
“Let’s get you some dinner.”
These — or variations on these — sentences are known to nearly all well-cared-for dogs.
But Dr. Fugazza was specifically interested in and focused on teaching dogs the names of specific items.
But here, too, all the dogs I know have learned the names of at least a few favorite toys or items — ball, bone, hedgehog (a nearly universal favorite toy). With minimal effort, intention, or knowledge of dog training, many dogs’ families teach them dozens of words.
Service dogs routinely learn to bring multiple items by name — shoes, slippers, keys, glasses, even tissues or pill boxes. By the age of one, Jana (the original Thinking Dog!) could choose the requested snack — “chips” or “Bamba” — from our pantry and bring it to us in the living room (potato chips and Bamba, a peanut-butter snack, smell very different).
Yet a two-year, global search by the Hungarian research team for their “Genius Dog Challenge” identified only six dogs, all Border collies, who could retrieve items by name. I missed their search somehow. Which is unfortunate, since I could name six dogs just in California who can do that, and not one of them is a Border collie.
I guess those dogs are all geniuses, as are Cali and Orly (and probably thousands more Missoula dogs). Is yours?