There’s something about a really smart dog that makes it seem as if there might be hope for the world. China is in the midst of a frightening disease outbreak and nobody knows how far it will spread. The warming of the planet shows no signs of stopping; it reached a record 70 degrees in Antarctica last week. Not to mention international tensions and domestic politics.
But there’s a dog in Norway that knows not only the names of her toys, but also the names of different categories of toys, and she learned all this just by hanging out with her owners and playing her favorite game. So who knows what other good things could be possible?
This dog’s name is Whisky. She is a Border collie that lives with her owners and almost 100 toys, so it seems like things are going pretty well for her. Even though I don’t have that many toys myself, I’m happy for her. You can’t be jealous of a dog. Or at least you shouldn’t be.
Whisky’s toys have names. Most are dog-appropriate like “the colorful rope” or “the small Frisbee.” However, her owner, Helge O. Svela said on Thursday that since the research was done, her toys have grown in number from 59 to 91, and he has had to give some toys “people” names, like Daisy or Wenger. “That’s for the plushy toys that resemble animals like ducks or elephants (because the names Duck and Elephant were already taken),” he said. During the research, Whisky proved in tests that she knew the names for at least 54 of her 59 toys.
That’s not just the claim of a proud owner, and Mr. Svela is quite proud of Whisky, but the finding of Claudia Fugazza, an animal behavior researcher from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, who tested her.
That alone makes Whisky part of a very select group, although not a champion. You may recall Chaser, another Border collie that knew the names of more than 1,000 objects and also knew words for categories of objects. And there are a few other dogs with shockingly large vocabularies, Dr. Fugazza said, including mixed breeds, and a Yorkie.
These canine verbal prodigies are, however, few and far between. “It is really, really unusual, and it is really difficult to teach object names to dogs,” Dr. Fugazza said.
Whisky’s achievement is even more surprising, Dr. Fugazza said, because she didn’t undergo the kind of intensive training received by Chaser, and by other animals, like baboons, that have shown an ability to group objects into categories.
“The owner is not a trainer,” Dr. Fugazza said. “He reported that Whisky attended a puppy course,” she added, “but she didn’t go on with training.” That’s another encouraging part of the story. So what if you didn’t get an M.F.A., you might still be able to write that novel.
Whisky learned the names of the objects in her cornucopia of fun by playing a game with her owners in which she would go fetch the toy they named. They played a lot. Dr. Fugazza and her colleague at the university, Adam Miklosi, wrote in the journal Scientific Reports that Whisky had 10 balls, seven rings, four ropes and four Frisbees. Since the names of the objects always included a specific adjective and general noun, like “small Frisbee,” Dr. Fugazza wanted to test if Whisky had gotten the idea of what a Frisbee was, and what a ball was, in a general, abstract way.
The way the experiment worked was that Dr. Fugazza went to Whisky’s home. In initial tests Whisky fetched most of her toys successfully. Then, for the category test, Dr. Fugazza would try her on four new toys at a time, first letting her play with the new toys with her owners in one test, or just explore them herself, in another test. Then Dr. Fugazza set the group of new toys in one room while she and the dog’s owners waited in the kitchen. One of the owners would ask Whisky to bring “a ball” or “a rope.”
She was successful about 50 percent of the time when she was given a chance to play with the new toys before the test. Given that she was choosing from four different items, that is much better than chance, Dr. Fugazza said.
Her achievement meant not only that she could group objects in categories in her mind, but also that she knew the words for those categories. While Dr. Fugazza suggests that all dogs have the ability to think in categories, only a select few, either because of training, or natural ability, actually know words for categories. And she had learned all that “naturally, in a way that is actually a little bit similar to what happens to human children,” Dr. Fugazza said.
Monique Udell, who studies dog behavior and cognition at Oregon State University, and who was not involved in the study, said that it’s hard to draw general conclusions from one dog. But, she said, “this study is an important reminder that animals are often learning from us even outside of formal training sessions.”
She said the work suggests that scientists should keep in mind the whole learning history of a dog when they use canines as test subjects. And dog owners might remember that “our animals may be learning more from us than we think.”
As a side note, no animals were harmed in this experiment. Dr. Fugazza said that Whisky quickly got the idea that if Dr. Fugazza showed up, it was time to play her favorite game, over and over again, something that Border collies like to do.
“If we wanted to give Whisky a break,” she said, “we had to go out of the house because otherwise she wanted to keep playing.”
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