Do our pets understand us?
'Just look at him – he understands every word we’re saying!' It’s a boast we often hear from doting dog owners, but how much do our canine companions and their feline friends really comprehend?
Scientists have been studying pets’ language learning ability for decades, with some remarkable discoveries. One of the first dogs to wow researchers with his word skills was Rico, a Border Collie from Germany. He gained international fame in 2004 after scientists proved that he could understand more than 200 verbal cues.
A paper published in the journal Science backed up these claims, proving that Rico could identify familiar objects an average of 37 times out of 40, and would also respond correctly to unfamiliar words used to identify objects he had never seen before.
While we can’t know exactly how Rico did this, Sian Ryan of animal behaviour consultancy Developing Dogs has a theory: 'Rico would retrieve an unknown item from among known items when a new word was given as a cue. This could be explained by a dog’s natural interest in new things, or by process of deduction – "I know the noises for all the other things in this room so the one I don’t know must be the one they want".'
Impressive as his ability was, Rico was far outstripped by Chaser, another Border Collie from South Carolina. In 2010 with the help of her owner, a retired psychologist, she learned more than 1000 words. (You can test your pet’s IQ and find out if it is above or below the average!)
And then there’s the cute mongrel Sofia from Brazil, who proved in 2012 that she can ask for what she wants from her owner by pressing keys on an electronic panel that correspond to "toy", "food", "walk" and so on.
So if you fancy improving your own dog’s language skills, how should you go about it?
'The best way to teach a new word is by classical conditioning,' explains Sian. 'Say the word immediately before the dog performs the action so that the word becomes a predictor for the action. Dogs pick up visual signals more quickly than verbal ones, so it is often useful to first associate an upward hand movement with the behaviour "sit", for example. Once the dog is reliably sitting on the hand movement, then use your cue word and follow the word with the hand signal, and after a few repetitions – and rewards for sitting – you will see the dog begin to anticipate the visual signal after the verbal cue and sit when asked to do so. Then you can stop using the visual signal.'
But to develop a really impressive vocabulary, the most important thing is to keep talking to your dog.
'Use phrases such as "do you want to go outside?" as you open the back door, "time to go for a walk" as you pick up the lead, "shall we go in the car?" as you get to the car, and your dog will soon learn what the words mean,' Sian advises.
It’s dogs’ fascination with observing and cooperating with humans that is key to their capacity to learn verbal cues, says Sian.
WHAT ABOUT CATS?
And herein lies a major difference between dogs and cats. While dogs are often keen to please, most cat owners will admit that while their moggies often do demonstrate understanding of verbal cues, they can’t always be relied upon to respond!
In the main, cats simply aren’t as attuned to humans as dogs are – they’re more likely to develop selective deafness and ignore us altogether, and they also have shorter attention spans than dogs so are usually trickier to train. That said, cats can usually be relied on to learn the word "food" quite quickly – it’s quite clearly a case of what suits them, rather than us…
Do you agree? Let us know what your dog or cat understands – and how you know – by posting your comments below.