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.

One Beagle’s Battle with Degenerative Disk Disease

If you’ve followed my blog during the past year, you know I like to travel.  This month my main trips have been to the veterinarian’s office.  The four-footed furry member of our team, experienced a set back in his health, forcing him to be on medical leave.

On our most recent camping trip, Buddy, our beagle, couldn’t seem to get comfortable. He paced, shivered, and whined. Buddy suffers with degenerative disk disease. On occasion he struggles with pain in his back. We phoned our vet, who advised us how to handle the present emergency. Fortunately, we brought along some medication to relieve his pain. Can you believe we actually carry a first aid kit for our dog? We administered the medication, but decided to come home early in case his condition worsened.

The next day Buddy improved. The combination of pain medication and steroids halted what might have been another terrible event.  In 2013, one of Buddy’s disks ruptured, resulting in paralysis of his hind legs. Click on the “buddy’s world” tab above for details.

We scheduled a follow-up appointment for Buddy with Dr. Enrique Duprey of the Corrine Drive Animal Hospital. The two of them have an understanding. Buddy strikes a cute pose and stares at Dr. Duprey. Few can resist Buddy’s beguiling brown eyes. Buddy knows his cuteness pays off in treats. On this visit Dr. Duprey offered more than treats. He offered laser treatments.

Low-level laser therapy is a relatively new concept being used to treat dogs with arthritis and degenerative disk disease. This illness is fairly common in long-bodied dogs. The treatments use light to stimulate cell regeneration, reduce inflamation, and increase blood circulation. For almost four years after his surgery and recovery, Buddy got along very well. His recent pain episode indicates the disease is still present.

A typical treatment session lasts ten to fifteen minutes. Buddy wears special dark goggles to protect his eyes. I’ve been told the laser feels good to the dogs. Buddy hasn’t complained. If laser therapy reduces his need for medication and prevents another ruptured back disk, we’re all for it. Right now he’s receiving two treatments a week. If he continues to do well, the treatments will be decreased to once a month. He’s had eight treatments so far. Buddy enjoys all the special attention he receives from the technicians at the animal hospital. He’s the coolest beagle in Orlando.

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Looking back, we’re not sorry we share our home and our lives with Buddy. Beagles give more than they take. Buddy is charming and congenial.  He’s a great companion. Relatively calm, Buddy’s not a nuisance barker, but he’ll let us know if cats or other visitors are near. Then he omits a loud baying sound heard for blocks. Out on a hike Buddy is attuned to the smells and sounds of the woods, a part of his hunting heritage.

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If you’ve experienced medical issues with a pet, or if you are simply crazy about beagles, leave a comment. I’d like to hear your story.

 

 

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