Who lives in South Carolina with a retired psych prof? The dog’s credentials are impressive:
That need to work is key to understanding how Chaser has been able to learn more human language than any other non-primate–and, in fact, more than almost any primate. Chaser knows upwards of 1,200 words. Not just nouns, but also verbs and modifiers like adjectives and prepositions.
John Pilley noticed that border collies could learn and follow a number of spoken commands:
After watching border collies do the work for which they were bred—herding sheep—he noticed that the dogs were able to identify individual sheep by name. The farmers were able to tell their border collies to circle and guide specific sheep without visually referencing them at all. If it works for sheep, thought Pilley, why not for everyday objects? Most dog training is behavioral: “sit” and “lay down” and other commands that tell a dog to perform an action. To teach Chaser the names of objects, rather than commands, Pilley first tried a technique called “match to sample.” It requires two of a certain object. Pilley would place, say, a frisbee and a piece of rope on the ground. Then he’d hold up another, similar frisbee, and say “Chaser: fetch frisbee.” Chaser would recognize the visual similarity between the two objects, and begin to make the connection between the word and the object.
Stanley Coren, author of The Intelligence of Dogs, has studied dog intelligence in a systematic way:
Ranking canine intelligence is a sticky business; Dr. Coren, for his book, ranked the dogs on their “working and obedience intelligence,” testing how quickly each breed could learn a command and how consistently each could demonstrate that knowledge. The border collie ranked highest, and the Afghan hound the lowest, but Coren is quick to note that intelligence is not any one thing, and that his ranking only applies to, basically, ability to respond to commands. The beagle, for example, ranks seventh from the bottom–a pretty dumb breed, according to the list. Yet these types of commands don’t play to the beagle’s strength; a member of the hound family, the beagle was bred as a hunting dog, trained to perform one task. Beagles are single-minded and determined, when tracking down a scent, but that was all they ever had to do–it was never necessary to understand and distinguish between multiple verbal commands. A border collie’s job, herding, is complex: move this sheep from this place to this place, keep a herd in a certain area, separate one sheep from the herd, divide the sheep into multiple groups, bring individual sheep to the herder. “Intelligence” doesn’t mean much, really; all way can say for sure is that border collies test extremely highly on a certain kind of obedience test.
Coren’s insights are usually valuable, but when he suggests that Chaser is about as smart as a two and a half-year-old child, he loses me. A toddler is a human too immature to engage in most human activities, and not comparable to any type of adult animal.
It would make more sense to compare Chaser to an adult chimpanzee or gorilla. Washoe , a chimp with exceptional language skills, died in 2007; the comparison would have been both interesting and instructive.