Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The meaning of "bark bark bark bark"

An article in the Seattle Times last week tells the story of Chaser, the dog who has a vocabulary of over a thousand words.

Chaser belongs to John W. Pilley, a psychology teacher at Wofford College.  Pilley had read an article in Science about Rico, a dog who had been taught to recognize the names of two hundred different objects, and he set out to better that.  Working with Chaser four or five hours a day, Pilley showed Chaser objects, stating their names, then hiding them, then doing it again, up to forty times, with treats and other reinforcements for identifying things correctly.  He tried to add two new words a day, and also spent time reviewing ones learned earlier.

According to Pilley, Chaser "loves her drills."  She demands the four or five hours of work, gets fretful if she doesn't get it, and sometimes, Pilley says, he "has to go to bed to get away from her."

At this point, it will come as no surprise to you dog owners that Chaser is a border collie.

Border collies are not, in my opinion, dogs.  They are doglike entities created by aliens from the planet Neurotica-6, which were then put on earth to infiltrate the ranks of real dogs and learn to emulate their ways.  This effort has been only partially successful.  I say this because I own a border collie, Doolin, who is the single oddest animal I've ever owned, and she's had some stiff competition in that regard.  Doolin learned how to unlatch our fence gates by watching us do it.  She has no concept of the word "play;" when she chases a frisbee and brings it back, you can tell that what she's thinking is, "Didn't I do a good job retrieving this frisbee?  I did notice, however, that I was 5.8 milliseconds shy of my previous record time.  Next time, I will beat my old record!  You'll see!"  Thus the joke:

Q:  How many border collies does it take to change a light bulb?
A:  Only one!  And then he will rewire the electrical system to bring it up to code!

Contrast this to my other dog, Grendel, who is a mutt to the extent that he looks like the result of someone putting random body parts from about seven different dog breeds together with superglue.  All Grendel thinks about is playing, food, and sleeping.  To say that he and Doolin don't understand each other is a vast understatement.  Mostly when they interact, they seem to regard each other with mild puzzlement.  Grendel seems to be thinking, "It looks like a dog, and smells like a dog.  But it never wants to play.  Oh, well, I do!  Where's my rope toy?"  Doolin, on the other hand, thinks, "Dear lord, that's a funny-looking sheep.  No matter, I can still herd it.  There's a job to be done here, and I'm the one to do it!"

In any case, back to Chaser.  After teaching Chaser over a thousand nouns, Pilley went on to teaching her some verbs -- touch, paw, fetch, nose, and so on.  And even more amazingly, Chaser understands categories; each of her frisbees (for example) has its own name, and she knows them all, but given the command "fetch a frisbee" she will pick out one of them.  Now, Pilley is working on trying to teach Chaser syntax -- the idea that changing the order of the words can change the meaning of the command; that "touch the red frisbee, then fetch the green ball" means something different than "fetch the green frisbee, then touch the red ball."

I find this absolutely fascinating.  I wonder if what is going on in Chaser's brain is the same as what happens when children learn words -- i.e. if there are analogous language-learning center in dogs' brains and in humans'.  I wonder, too, what the limit of her understanding is -- if she could be taught to understand consequentials, for example -- "if I touch the red toy, you touch the blue one; if I touch the blue toy,  you touch the green one."  (I know some students who still haven't mastered simple consequentials such as, "If you don't turn in your homework, you will get a bad grade.")  Lastly, I wonder if this is a skill unique to border collies, or if other dog breeds, or other animal species, might have the same skill.  I doubt seriously whether Grendel's vocabulary, for example, could ever be extended past "rope toy," "dinner time," and "youwannagoforawalk?"  And our cats are hopeless -- not that I don't think they have adequate brainpower, but because any time I try to train them to do something, they respond with scorn.  "Stay off the dinner table?" they seem to say, their expressions dripping sarcasm.  "Maybe for the moment.  But you have to stop watching me at some point, you know."

But keep your eye on Chaser.  She's going places.  I'm sure she'll be making the rounds of the talk shows, and after that, the next logical step is the political arena.  Wouldn't you like to see Sarah Palin and Chaser debate the merits of Universal Veterinary Health Care?  I know I would.

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