The PBS show NOVA scheduled for February 9 on most of your same station takes the example of Chaser, a Border Collie whom a retired psychologist taught of 1,000 "words," as well as apparently was imbued with grammatical awareness, too. Under a clever hed, writer Nicholas Wade tells the story in the NYTimes, today:
Chaser, a border collie who lives in Spartanburg, S.C., has the largest vocabulary of any known dog. She knows 1,022 proper nouns, a record that displays unexpected depths of the canine mind and may help explain how children acquire language.Go to the linked story for the rest. It's quite complete and fairly done.
Chaser belongs to John W. Pilley, a psychologist who taught for 30 years at Wofford College, a liberal arts institution in Spartanburg. In 2004, after he had retired, he read a report in Science about Rico, a border collie whose German owners had taught him to recognize 200 items, mostly toys and balls. Dr. Pilley decided to repeat the experiment using a technique he had developed for teaching dogs, and he describes his findings in the current issue of the journal Behavioural Processes.
He bought Chaser as a puppy in 2004 from a local breeder and started to train her for four to five hours a day. He would show her an object, say its name up to 40 times, then hide it and ask her to find it, while repeating the name all the time. She was taught one or two new names a day, with monthly revisions and reinforcement for any names she had forgotten.
Border collies are working dogs. They have a reputation for smartness, and they are highly motivated. They are bred to herd sheep indefatigably all day long. Absent that task, they must be given something else to do or they go stir crazy.
Chaser proved to be a diligent student. Unlike human children, she seems to love her drills and tests and is always asking for more. “She still demands four to five hours a day,” Dr. Pilley said. “I’m 82, and I have to go to bed to get away from her.”
One of Dr. Pilley’s goals was to see if he could teach Chaser a larger vocabulary than Rico acquired. But that vocabulary is based on physical objects that must be given a name the dog can recognize. Dr. Pilley found himself visiting Salvation Army stores and buying up sackfuls of used children’s toys to serve as vocabulary items.
It was hard to remember all the names Chaser had to learn, so he wrote the name on each toy with indelible marker. In three years, Chaser’s vocabulary included 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and a medley of plastic items.
Children pick up about 10 new words a day until, by the time they leave high school, they know around 60,000 words. Chaser learned words more slowly but faced a harder task: Each sound was new and she had nothing to relate it to, whereas children learn words in a context that makes them easier to remember. For example, knives, forks and spoons are found together.
Dr. Pilley does not know how large a vocabulary Chaser could have mastered. When she reached 1,000 items, he grew tired of teaching words and moved to more interesting topics like grammar.
One of the questions raised by the Rico study was that of what was going through the dog’s mind when he was asked to fetch something. Did he think of his toys as items labeled fetch-ball, fetch-Frisbee, fetch-doll, or did he understand the word “fetch” separately from its object, as people do?
Dr. Pilley addressed the question by teaching Chaser three different actions: pawing, nosing and taking an object. She was then presented with three of her toys and correctly pawed, nosed or fetched each one depending on the command given to her. “That experiment demonstrates conclusively that Chaser understood that the verb had a meaning,” Dr. Pilley said.