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Do Dogs Understand Our Words? The Dogs Weigh In

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“This is not your food! Don’t even think about eating it. This … is … not … your … food.” What do our words mean to dogs? Not that I’m about to stop speaking to dogs anytime soon, but I do wonder what my daily utterances signify to Millie, Piper, Upton and Finnegan, the dogs I converse with on a regular basis. Do I sound like a cross between Charlie Brown’s teacher and Gary Larson’s “What Dogs Hear” cartoon? Are we on the same page, or even in the same book?

Chaser the Border Collie is back in the news. She initially captured headlines in 2011 as “the smartest dog in the world” when research published in Behavioral Processes reported that she knew the names of 1,022 distinct objects. Now, Chaser’s way with words is being revisited in a special “dog” issue of Learning and Motivation. Chaser is now being hailed a “grammar hound” after successfully attending to syntactical relationships between words in sentences, like differentiating “to ball take Frisbee” from “to Frisbee take ball.” You can check out Chaser in action on her YouTube channel.

But is Chaser the dog equivalent of Beyonce, a god among mortals? Or might other dogs have a similar panache for language? And how might you test whether your dog understands your words as you intend them?

To learn more, check out my recent article over at The Bark Magazine: Do Dogs Understand Our Words?, which includes interviews with:

  • John Pilley, Chaser’s owner, and the author of the new research paper
  • Julia Fischer, Daniela Ramos and Susanne Grassmann, researchers of other dogs like Chaser
  • Patricia McConnell, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, discussing what her dogs do and don’t know when it comes to words

Reference: J, Pilley. Border collie comprehends sentences containing a prepositional object, verb and direct object. Learning and Motivation. Published online May 13, 2013. doi:10.1016/j.lmot.2013.02.003.

Photo © Chris Bott Contact at bottyc@aol.com or www.chrisbottphoto.com

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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