Who’s a good dog?

We cover some serious topics on this blog. This is not one.

The cover story of today’s NY Times Science section is about a border collie trained by psychologist John Pilley to recognize over 1000 words. Pilley’s findings were published in the journal Behavioral Processes.

Pilley trained Chaser, the border collie, 1022 words through brute force: one or two new nouns per day, driven home with repetition (up to 40 times), and reinforcement of nouns the dog forgot.

The article makes the claim that Pilley’s experiment may help explain how children learn language. Specifically, Dr. Pilley concludes that “Chaser acquired referential understanding of nouns, an ability normally attributed to children.” Referential understanding refers to the ability to identify a reference to an object (such as a photo).

But there’s some reason to be skeptical. First, as the article points out, Chaser’s task was more challenging because she lacked any context for the nouns that can make them easier to remember (for example, “knives, forks and spoons are found together”). Additionally, children don’t generally learn new words through brute repetition. And, Chaser learned all of her words as “proper nouns, which are specific labels for things, rather than as abstract concepts like the common nouns picked up by children.”

If you’d like to learn more, Chaser will be featured in a Nova episode about animal intelligence on February 9th.

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