Who said you can’t teach an “old” dog new tricks? A nine-year-old Border Collie, Chaser, was trained to understand the names of over 1000 objects. Recent work has discovered that Chaser was able to differentiate between the names of objects and commands to fetch them.
This new research confirms the findings of John Pilley and Alliston Reid of Wofford College, Germany who answered two major questions with their research: How large can a dog’s vocabulary become if given extensive training? What do dogs actually understand when we use human language to communicate with them?
Chaser gained fame by comprehending complete sentences containing a prepositional object, verb, and direct object. “Chaser intuitively discovered how to comprehend sentences based on lots of background learning about different types of words,” Dr. John Pilley, Chaser’s owner and a retired psychology professor at Wofford College in South Carolina, told Science News. Pilley had previously taught Chaser to understand objects by name and to remember them.
Chaser’s comprehension of sentences was tested with many familiar objects and new objects as well. Chaser was even tested when she could not see the objects at the time that she received the commands. Pilley wrote that the findings are relevant and statistically significant. “Successful findings were attributed to Chaser’s intensive training in her first three years of life.” Similar studies demonstrating that dogs do understand simple two-word sentences such as “pull toy” and “fetch ball” have been observed before.
So, exactly how smart are these dogs? Dr. Stanley Coren, an expert on canine intelligence, said via Huffington Post: “Roughly speaking, the average dog is equivalent to a human two-year-old in terms of mental abilities. And the ‘super dogs’ are equivalent to maybe a human two-and-a-half-year-old. ‘Super dogs’ are breeds ranked in the top 20 percent of canine intelligence. Border Collies are considered the most intelligent, followed by Poodles and German Shepherds. No matter what the breed, the key to teaching dogs to understand commands is repetitive training.” He added that simple commands and consistency are also essential.