January 19, 2011

Dogs have 100 words for 'ball'...

First, there was Rico. Now, there is Chaser. The NY Times reports that Chaser knows the name of more than 1000 toys ("800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and a medley of plastic items").
The 1,022 words in Chaser’s vocabulary are all proper nouns. Dr. Pilley also found that Chaser could be trained to recognize categories, in other words common nouns. She correctly follows the command “Fetch a Frisbee” or “Fetch a ball.” She can also learn by exclusion, as children do. If she is asked to fetch a new toy with a word she does not know, she will pick it out from ones that are familiar.
However, there's a difference between Chaser's vocabulary and a child's vocabulary right there: Chaser's words are all proper nouns. She knows the name of 1000 individual objects, but does she know what a 'toy' is? And does being able to understand the meaning of a verb-noun combination like 'fetch a ball' mean that a dog knows syntax? Would the dog care at all if you switched the words around?


Nova episode on animal intelligence, in which Chaser stars, will be broadcast on Feb. 9.

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