I imagine that few dog owners haven’t wondered, as they watched their pet sniff with profound absorption at a patch of grass, how a dog might explain the attractions of the olfactory world if he had the gift of speech. Do dogs translate smells into stories with a past and future tense? Could they teach us words for smells that we didn’t know to name? Certainly, fiction has often given talking animals a rich vocabulary for smell, just as the Inuit were once believed to have a hundred words for snow. (In a sequence of the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” a boy interrogates his friend, who happens to be a tiger, about words for smells. “What’s the word for how wet leaves smell?” the boy asks. “Snippid,” the tiger replies. “What’s the word for how I smell?” “Terrible.”)
According to Alexandra Horowitz, an expert on canine cognition who recently published a book on how dogs use their sense of smell, we can only speculate loosely, based on “what dogs spend a lot of time smelling,” about what a canine vocabulary of smell might be like. Dogs would likely create words for olfactory features that mark individuals: for example, hormones that distinguish males from females, old from young, this old, healthy neutered male from that old, healthy neutered male. They might name a spectrum of smells belonging to food, a spectrum of smells belonging to other species, and a spectrum of smells belonging to places where other species live. And because dogs might use olfactory cues to “anticipate future events or someone who is arriving,” they might augment their language of smell with linguistic markers that express future or past activity. (Perhaps suffixes to express past and future tenses: snippid, the smell of wet leaves; snippidae, the smell of leaves that were recently, but are not now, wet; snippida, the smell of leaves that will soon be wet, as the air smells like rain.) They might create markers to convey that a smell is freshly here, has been here for a long time, or is not here any longer.
The problem with this line of thought, of course, is that dogs lack the capacity to create words. Humans have linguistic protocols embedded in the brain that allow us to create words, that is, lexical units of meaning that obey morphological rules; dogs, which lack those protocols, don’t create mental “words” as we would recognize them.
We know that dogs can learn—to an extent—the meaning of human words. A border collie named Chaser has famously learned the names of more than 1000 toys; she can fetch any of the toys when given its name, and even perform actions in response to commands made up of nuanced sentences. Moreover, we know that dogs analyze separately, as humans do, the meaning of a word and the tone in which it is spoken; a study published in Science last year showed that the brains of dogs, scanned as the dogs lay still in an MRI machine (they were very good dogs), separately registered the tone and meaning of spoken words, and responded powerfully when the tone fit the meaning.
Nevertheless, dog owners tend to believe that their pets understand language better than they actually do. This leads to common mistakes in communication—for example, when we repeat a command in different words, as though to explain what we mean. “Synonymy is not a useful concept for dogs,” Horowitz says. “You have to use the same language in some way. Then even if they don’t understand something in the sentence, they have an audio cue that they can translate into a meaning that works for them.”
Another common mistake, Horowitz says, is to use a dog’s name as we would a human name, for instance adding it as a tag to a sentence. Dogs may not understand their names as we understand ours; rather than as something that belongs to them, they may see a name simply as a finger pointed in their direction—“a cue that we’re talking about them.” We make better use of a dog’s name when speaking it in isolation than when adding it to a sentence.
In short, dogs do not understand words in the complex way that humans understand them. Still, one feature of human morphology may overlap surprisingly well with dog communication. This is the phenomenon that linguists call phonetic symbolism.
We know that dogs interpret high and low-pitched sounds as meaningfully different. The meanings they interpret concern social relationships, emotional states, and possible threats. Unlike the meanings that we derive from the arbitrary symbols of our words, tonal meanings are embedded in the brains of dogs and indeed most animals; they enable dogs to comprehend each other as well as other species. “For instance,” writes the animal psychologist Stanley Coren, “low-pitched sounds (such as a dog’s growl) usually indicate threats, anger, and the possibility of aggression. Low-pitched sounds basically mean ‘Stay away from me.’ In general, high-pitched sounds mean the opposite. They indicate, ‘I’m no threat,’ ‘It’s safe to come closer,’ or ask, ‘May I come closer to you?’”
Humans are animals, too, of course, and our own responsiveness to high and low-pitched sounds comes out in many aspects of our cultures. The distinctive speech that parents in many cultures use with infants, which used to be called motherese (now caretaker language), is high-pitched, as though to reassure hearers of their safety; as Horowitz notes, babies and dogs alike take special interest in this kind of speech. Horror movies, in the meanwhile, tend to use soundtracks that alternate two kinds of sounds to create a chilling effect: extremely deep sounds, which give hearers the uneasy sense of a looming threat, and high, sharp sounds, which resemble the screaming of wounded animals.
Phonetic symbolism, which the linguist Steven Pinker calls “a quaint curiosity of English and many other languages,” may represent a different realization of this general pattern. The term refers to our tendency to think small when we hear vowels pronounced in a part of the mouth that amplifies higher frequencies (beet, bit), and to think large when we hear vowels that are pronounced in a part of the mouth that amplifies lower frequencies (father, core, cot). “Thus mice are teeny and squeak,” Pinker writes, “but elephants are humongous and roar. Audio speakers have small tweeters for the high sounds and large woofers for the low ones. English speakers correctly guess that in Chinese ch’ing means light and ch’ung means heavy.” In the slang of audio technicians, adjusting the knobs on an audio panel on a large scale is frobbing, on a medium scale is twiddling, and on a minute scale is tweaking: “The ob, id, and eak sounds perfectly follow the large-to-small continuum of phonetic symbolism.”
Some linguists suggest that phonetic symbolism reflects our subliminal awareness of the shape of the mouth cavity: a small cavity for tweak, a large cavity for frob. However, a simpler explanation may be that phonetic symbolism participates in the tonal consciousness that we share with so many other animals. The ability to create words is uniquely human. But perhaps here, as elsewhere, the tonal meanings that run beneath our words sound the depths of our animal nature.
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Dogs can learn the names of many, many, many different objects. Julia Fischer, group leader at the German Primate Center’s Cognitive Ethology Lab, heard that a Border Collie named Rico knew the names of 70 individual objects, and she wanted to know how Rico mapped specific human words to particular objects. “I contacted the owners, and they let us visit their home and start a study of Rico,” explains Fischer. This culminated in 2004 with an article in Science, reporting that Rico knew the names of over 200 different objects.
Seven years later, Chaser, a Border Collie in South Carolina, took the gold medal when Alliston Reid and John Pilley of Wofford College reported that Chaser knew the distinct names of 1,022 objects — more than 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and 100 plastic items. Chaser knows that “Uncle Fuzz” is different from “Wise Owl,” who is certainly different from “Merlin.” This is not merely a story about Border Collies, however. Researchers recently related that Bailey, a 12-year-old Yorkshire Terrier, knows the names of about 120 toys.
Chaser and Rico also win praise for their ability to learn and retain the names of new objects. When presented with a group of toys, all of which were familiar except one, the dogs could retrieve the unknown toy when asked to fetch using an unfamiliar word. In essence, the dogs were pairing a novel object with an unfamiliar name after a single association and then remembering the name of that new object in subsequent trials. In children, this is called “fast mapping,” and it was thought to be uniquely human. Pilley notes, “This research shows that this understanding occurs on a single trial. However, Chaser needed addition rehearsal in order to transfer this understanding or learning into long-term memory.”
But life is not only about knowing the names of one’s stuffies and Frisbees. Humans often use verbs such as come, sit, down and off to get dogs to alter their behavior. After controlling for outside contextual cues, researchers found that dogs could still understand that specific words map to specific physical actions. Chaser showed an incredible amount of flexibility with actions — performing “take,” “paw” and “nose” toward different objects.
“That’s just training,” you might say, but this suggests that some dogs show a cognitively advanced skill where actions are understood as independent from objects. Reid and Pilley found that Chaser does not interpret “fetch sock” as one single word, like “fetchsock.” Instead, she can perform a number of different actions flexibly toward a number of different objects. Daniela Ramos, a veterinary behaviorist in São Paulo, discovered that a mutt named Sofia could also differentiate object names from action commands, suggesting these dogs attend to the individual meaning of each word.
Chaser puts the icing on the cake when she assigns objects to different categories based on their physical properties; some are “toys,” others are “Frisbees” and, of course, there are “balls.” Chaser takes her cue from Alex, Irene Pepperberg’s African Grey Parrot, who also learned categories like color, shape and material, and differentiated which trait was the same or different.
This all seems quite extraordinary, but nothing comes free of controversy. Do dogs like Chaser and Sofia use and understand language the same way humans do, or are they merely welltrained? For example, some researchers are not certain that dogs actually “fast map”; dogs might be doing something that simply looks like “fast mapping” from the outside. Regardless, it does seem as though these dogs have a conception of objects and actions. Patricia McConnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and beloved Bark columnist, agrees. “Understanding requires that we share the same reference — that we have the same construct of an object or an action. For some dogs, it seems like they do.” Pilley concurs. “When an object, such as a toy, is held before Chaser and a verbal label is given to that object, Chaser understands that the verbal label refers to that object.”
In her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz reminds us that even if these are the only dogs in the world capable of using words this way, it allows us to see that a “dog’s cognitive equipment is good enough to understand language in the right context.” This body of research indicates what is possible, not necessarily what most dogs do every day.
Who Are You Living With?
Whether you have a Chaser or a Rico in your home might largely depend on you. As Fischer explains, “A dog’s use of human language depends very much on the willingness of the owner to establish a verbal relationship, to establish links between words and particular meanings.” Fischer is referring to motivation in both the human and the dog. Ramos and her colleagues trained and tested Sofia two to three times a day, three to six times a week. When Pilley, who doubles as researcher and Chaser’s owner, began training Chaser to identify objects at five months of age, Pilley repeated object names 20 to 40 times each session to make sure she got it.
Like Rocky Balboa preparing for his climactic showdown, these dogs are highly motivated. Fischer notes, “Rico was eager and hard working. You’d have to tell him, ‘That’s enough. Get something to drink. Take a rest.’” Chaser is similar, says Pilley. “She has two states—highly, highly active and recuperating and resting.”
Denise Fenzi, a professional dog trainer from Woodside, Calif., who specializes in a variety of dog sports, reminds us that this type of motivation is not necessarily the norm. “Not all dogs share this attention to words. Even in my dogs [all of whom are the same breed], there is a huge difference in ability to verbally process. I didn’t train them differently. It’s just easier for one to quickly get words.”
The way dogs learn words might be the biggest piece of the puzzle. McConnell finds, “Word learning might depend upon how words are first introduced. The guardians who explicitly differentiate words, teaching, ‘Get your Greenie! Get your ball,’ often have the dogs with big vocabularies. On the other hand, my own dog Willie was given verbal cues for years that stood for actions rather than objects. When I tried to teach him that words could refer to objects he was completely confused.”
What dogs are able to do with language could also be explained by their tutelage. If dogs don’t learn to attach a variety of different actions to a variety of objects, it might be harder for them in the long run to be flexible with human language. Susanne Grassmann, a developmental psychologist and psycholinguist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands explains, “Chaser was trained to do different things with different objects, and she differentiates between what is the object label and what is the action command, meaning what to do with that object.”