The Mystery of Canine Language Capabilities

Have you ever wondered how many words a dog knows? When I write about Buddy the Beagle, I tend to humanize his ability to process English. After all, I am a fiction writer. In my stories, Buddy listens intently to his humans and picks up new words from their conversations.

Contrary to my imagination, my real life interactions with Buddy pair words with action. If we’re on a walk and he tries to gobble garbage, “No” is accompanied by a tug on his leash. When I want him to “lie down” or “roll over,” I use hand signals in addition to verbal commands. “Good boy” is usually accompanied by a treat.

Truthfully, my dog reads more into my body language than my actual words. He also recognizes my tone of voice and facial expressions to understand what I mean. If I smile and excitedly say, “Let’s go for a walk,” Buddy trots to the door.

Dogs process speech in much the same way as human infants do between six and fourteen months. With repetition, both dogs and babies associate certain words with actions. Dogs do listen to human speech, but they don’t consider different letter sounds important. A growing vocabulary requires phonetic precision.

All of this makes sense, unless your dog is the smartest dog in the world. A border collie named Chaser proved dogs can differentiate between words. Chaser’s owner, Dr. John Pilley, taught psychology at Wofford U. (no joke)

After he retired from teaching, Dr. Pilley talked to a sheep rancher whose border collie knew how to retrieve specific sheep from the field by their names. When Jeb was told to “go get Millie and Tillie,” the dog picked Millie and Tillie out of a herd of one hundred sheep and brought them back.

When Chaser was two months old, Dr. Pilley started teaching her proper nouns, beginning with a blue ball. He used a strategy called errorless learning, which means setting up an environment in which the subject cannot fail. He would name it, show it to her, say “catch blue” and throw it to her.“He’d put it in front of her and say “find blue.” On the third day, when she could retrieve the ball from another room, he knew it was time to move on to another object. At the end of the fifth month, Chaser had learned forty words and kept them in her long-term memory. During the course of Chaser’s lifetime, she learned one thousand nouns. Dr. Pilley and Chaser changed the field of dog intelligence using the power of play and positive reinforcement.

Reading about Chaser inspires me to start a list of words Buddy knows.

  • cookie
  • carrot
  • treat
  • popcorn
  • kibble
  • bacon

Hmm… are you noticing a pattern? Food is one category of language Buddy understands. And he can always find it. Like many dogs, Buddy is also good at math. I love this quote by Phil Pastoret.

“If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two of them.”

Are you tuned into your dog’s language abilities? Leave a comment and let me know the details.

Reading: Just Do It!

People who can read, should.

Are you a reader? Do you enjoy losing yourself in a book? May is National Get Caught Reading Month. The campaign encourages people of all ages to read for enjoyment.

REMEMBER WHEN READING WAS FUN ?

When I was a child I loved to read or hear others read. Yertle the Turtle, by Dr. Seuss was one of our family favorites. My mother read the book to us so often, my brothers and I memorized most of the lines.

In elementary school I enjoyed the Boxcar Children. Author Gertrude Warren amazed me with her tale of four orphans surviving on their own in an abandoned boxcar. I admired their ingenuity and the way they cared for one another.

A memorable character I related to was Anne Shirley, the dramatic imaginative Anne, spelled with an E of course! I felt a connection because like me, she got in trouble for talking too much. I read Anne of Green Gables again as an adult. L.M. Montgomery still delighted me with her beautiful descriptions. A few years ago, I enjoyed posing with “Anne” on a trip to Prince Edward Island.

HOW I LOST MY LOVE OF READING

As a parent, teacher, and now as a new author, I’m still talking to children about the importance of reading. Books contain insight, information, and inspiration. Books help us grow mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. Parents and teachers encourage their children to read, but do they read for themselves? If not, what happened?

Sometime during my high school years, I was forced to read for information only. The entertainment value of books decreased. My classes demanded I read in order to pass a test, or write a term paper. This continued throughout college. The joy of reading evaporated like a puddle on hot pavement.

After college I became busy with my teaching career, managing a household, and transporting my children to their activities. I always hoped I would have more time to read without interruption. Sigh. Does reading a lesson plan count?

I remember when elementary schools used to have D.E.A.R. time during the school day. Everybody, including the teacher, was supposed to Drop Everything And Read. It was a sacred time when teachers were supposed to model good reading behavior. That’s a great idea in a perfect world. The reality was much different. It was hard for me to ignore the children and sit with a book when Johnny was writing with a Sharpie on his desk. Well, like many short lived programs, D.E.A.R. was dropped for learning goals and standardized testing. How sad.

Fortunately for me, retirement brought an opportunity to read more. One of my favorite books is The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. Author Kim Michele Richardson tells the story of the blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the prejudice they encountered during the 1930’s. As someone who is “blue,” Cussy Mary Carter had plenty of reasons to hate white people, but instead responded with love. Cussy worked as a “packhorse librarian.” She carried books to some of the poorest and most remote shacks in Appalachia. The packhorse lending library was sponsored by the WPA of the Roosevelt administration. Cussy’s patrons grew to appreciate her love for books and gave her the name Book Woman. This book made me think about the importance of reading and how I often take it for granted.

START NEW HABITS

It’s hard to change old habits, but here are five tips to increase your time spend reading.

Read for fifteen minutes every night before you go to bed.

Order books from the public library. Most libraries lend ebooks these days.

Join a book club. You’ll read books you wouldn’t normally read, and make lifelong friends.

Join Book Bub, an online service that emails you daily with reduced prices on Amazon ebooks that suit your interests.

Dedicate one night a week to uninterrupted reading. Stay away from your phone, or better yet, turn it off.

Hopefully I’ve encouraged you to get busy reading, but keep reading blogs, too! (I think that counts.) What are you reading lately? Leave a comment about a book you’ve enjoyed, or offer a reading tip of your own.

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