Jan. 12 2011 10:38 AM

New study reveals non-human intelligence


    In at least one way, your dog might be smarter than you. If you were given more than a thousand objects, each assigned with a proper-noun name, could you memorize and correctly identify all of them? Chaser, a 6-year-old female border collie, can.

    Last week, the science journal Behavioural Processes reported the findings of researchers at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., who spent three years working with Chaser to help understand how well dogs understand human language.

    Chaser's owner, professor John Pilley, and the study's co-author, professor Alliston Reid, invented names for 1,022 toys (stuffed animals, rubber chew toys, Frisbees, balls, etc.) and found that Chaser was able to learn and remember all of them.

    In fact, the study didn't end because the dog had reached her limit; Pilley and Reid had to end the research because of time constraints. The ceiling of how many words a dog can learn is still unknown.

    Here's how the research was conducted: Chaser was introduced to the toys one at a time, and then each name was extensively reinforced. Her entire vocabulary was regularly tested as new objects were added.

    Groups of 20 toys were chosen at random, from which Chaser had to then retrieve specific toys by name. During the course of the three years, she completed 838 of these tests and never got less than 18 out of 20 right. She was also taught to combine three different commands with the toys—“paw” (move it with your paw), “nose” (push it with your nose) and “bring.” Her success in distinguishing commands shows that Chaser understood the names corresponding to the objects, irrespective of the command to do something with it.

    Toys were also placed among other types of objects, and Chaser was then asked to bring a toy. This demonstrated that Chaser understood the classification of objects into groups.

    Take a look at a short list of the names of some of Chaser's toys: Sunshine, boy, kangaroo, infant, bear, hatchet, puppy dog, caterpillar, lynx, spiderman, pixie, tentacle, royal, winter, amphibian, antler, chimpanzee, peanut, teeny bopper, mule, pillow, lucky, dairy, elephant, pyramid, decoy, cactus, zombie, bloodsucker, waddle, butterfly, clock, buttons, soap, fireman, baker, daffodil, serpent, chubby, balloon, rope, foam, bigfoot, snake, cherry, jelly, gold, monster, bouncy, wimpy, marble, love, health, hard, spooky, golf, boot, milk, heavy, plum, powder puff, circle, mountain goat, aqua, slipper, cock-a-doodledoo, mister potato, elf.

    Now imagine this list 15 times longer and you begin to grasp the scope of Chaser's auditory and cognitive ability.

    Much of the mainstream reportage of this story suggests that Chaser's abilities are anomalous. The hyperbolic headlines champion the dog as if she were a sideshow freak, a savant of the dog world.

    USA Today and Time's headlines glibly dubbed Chaser “the smartest dog in the world.” Likewise, Fox News called her the “world's smartest dog.”

    Not to downplay Chaser, but it's not at all clear how anomalous her abilities are, given how few similar studies have been conducted. Most of us don't have five hours a day over three years to devote to training our dogs, let alone room to store 1,022 toys. Granted, border collies are known for their smarts, but is Chaser an exceptional or typical border collie? Could other breeds perform as well in such tests?

    Would a Chihuahua even be willing to participate?

    Fortunately, the scientists who conducted the research take what they do more seriously than the sensationalistic media do. In their suggestions for further research, Pilley and Reid call for studies of other breeds of dog, wonder whether relationships between humans and dogs have influenced dogs' ability to communicate with humans and ask whether this influence is unique to dogs.

    Their last suggestion may seem like an innocuous afterthought, yet it's perhaps one of the most important questions asked in any recent major scientific study.

    Dogs are a protected class of animal, awarded special treatment by humans, judging from the public fury over the 2007 Michael Vick scandal. No matter how impressed we are by Chaser, for many of us she confirms our prejudice: In my own case, I have a very good dog friend named Dempsey who clearly knows the difference between “dinner” and “tennis ball.” He may not know the names of 1,000 things, yet I still consider Dempsey smarter than several of my Facebook friends.

    It's the ease with which pet-status animals such as dogs can be integrated into human culture—as much as their intelligence—that lets them off the meat-hook. But the more non-humans are perceived as being able to do the things that humans do, the less our right to do whatever we want with them seems a given.

    Studies similar to Pilley and Reid's were conducted with pigs in the late 1990s by animal-sciences professor Stanley Curtis. He discovered that pigs perform quite well at video games with joysticks. “They can hold an icon in their mind, and remember it at a later date [and] are able to focus with an intensity I have never seen in a chimp,” Curtis told the online science journal Research Penn State.

    And did you know that mother pigs sing to their piglets while they are nursing? But that's another study.

    Write to dak@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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