Could our dogs be verbal virtuosos? Perhaps more than we may think!

This is the second post in a series about dog cognition. In case you missed the first one, click: “How much does your dog understand?” I’ve also written about working dogs on this blog. That post touched on dog cognition, but didn’t go into as much depth.

This series started when I wrote a guest post on dog cognition for Booker T’s Farm,  a blog devoted to books and dogs (a great combo!). Their format, however, didn’t include the hyperlinks to sources that I’d suggested. (Note: Booker T’s Farm also posted a very nice review of What’s Bred in the Bone).

Science doesn’t stand still, so there’s updated information to add. That (and the chance to share links to sources) is why I decided to expand on my August post with this series.

If only dogs could talk!

I am certainly not the only person who’s ever wished her dog could talk. They usually manage to express themselves clearly enough to tell us when they’re hungry or want to go out, but I sometimes would swear they’re just as frustrated as we are.

We need a for-real “Dr. Dolittle interface” of some sort! And it’s possible we may be getting closer to one, but more on that in a bit.

Dogs can’t (quite) speak our languages, but there’s growing scientific agreement that they understand what our words mean. We also now know that understanding is aided by the tone of our voice.

And it’s long been clear they can and do respond to our wishes, cued by words (sounds) we’ve taught them. (Scientists haven’t, as far as I know, done studies on “selective hearing” in dogs who choose not to respond. But perhaps that’s an indicator of intelligence, too).

All of these capabilities, plus dogs’ eagerness to interact with humans, place them on the road to becoming verbal virtuosos.

The (so far) unparalleled Chaser

Probably the most famous canine verbal virtuoso was Chaser, a border collie who belonged to a psychology professor named John Pilley.  Pilley and Chaser were able to demonstrate that she had a vocabulary of 1,022 different nouns (the names of toys), and that she could comprehend (by reacting appropriately to) sentences containing a prepositional object, a verb, and a direct object.

Pilley memorably showed her talents to the world on TV. There’s an episode of 60 Minutes in which she starred. It first aired in 2014, but it’s still available onlinePilley and Chaser also demonstrated her smarts to Neil DeGrasse Tyson on an episode of NOVA on PBS.

Yes, but could she also read?

Chaser understood more than 1,000 nouns and could correctly follow verbal commands using different verbs and objects, but I haven’t found any evidence online that she could respond to written symbols. That doesn’t mean, however that a dog can’t do that.

While it’s true that dogs can’t read the way humans can, it is possible to teach them to recognize individual written words (visual symbols) and respond to them as if they were spoken commands.

Several different dogs have been taught to do this, as an inspiration for elementary students just beginning to read. The largest “written vocabulary” I found online was four words, demonstrated by a Labrador Retriever in the UK, named Fernie.

Fernie the "reading dog" and his human a primary school headmaster named Nik Gardner, demonstrate two of the commands Fernie can read.
“Reading Dog” Fernie is a different kind of verbal virtuoso. He and his human, Winford Primary School Headmaster Nik Gardner, demonstrate two of the written commands Gardner has taught Fernie. (Photo by SWNS / David Hedges, via the Telegraph UK).

Mini-Aussie Mia and chocolate lab Fernie are both employed as inspirations for young human readers. They’re going “one better” on the many school-certified dogs around the world who help children improve their reading skills (and sometimes get helped in return).

Meet Stella, the world’s most recent dog star

Just this month, a new canine verbal virtuoso came onto my radar. Stella, a Catahoula / Blue Heeler mix, is the dog of speech pathologist Christina Hunger.

She wanted to teach her dog to communicate using sounds–and her professional background gave her the technology to try it. As News 18 described it, “Christina designed a Voice Output Communication Aid on cardboard. The device is normally used to help low or nonverbal people to communicate.”

Christina has documented Stella using two or more words in sequence, and notes her technique is improving all the time. In Christina’s latest post, Stella’s vocabulary had grown to 22 word-buttons, but a more recent video from Welfare of Dogs documents 29 words.

Stella and Christina’s use of adaptive technology brings other animal word-use experiments to mind. You may remember Koko the gorilla, who used American Sign Language and whose vocabulary surpassed that of the amazing Chaser.

There also was an experiment with teaching orangutans to use iPads for communicating information such as what they wanted for dinner. The program, from Orangutan Outreach, is called “Apps for Apes.” It was designed to draw attention to them, more than it was a serious effort to advance the science of communication with the animals. I reported on it in 2013 when the Kansas City Zoo adopted the program, but I haven’t been able to find information more recent than 2015.

We’re still not quite ready to swear in a K9 officer to testify . . . or are we?

The decision to give my fictional XK9s a vocalizer has its roots in both wish-fulfillment and the potential I see in contemporary adaptive and communication technology. But another inspiration was an overheard comment from a police commander that for well or ill a K9 can’t testify in court. No, we haven’t quite come that far.

Except maybe in Punta Gorda, Florida

In 2012, a defendant called a K9 as a witness for the defense. Deputy Franko, K9 Azor’s handler, had given defendant Rodney McGee a ticket. What happened next? Reporters who covered the story at the time explained.

No, K9 Azor didn’t have much to say, after all. But we can’t really know what he’d have said, if he’d been trained on a sound board like Stella’s. Imagine a K9 trained on one that said things such as “suspect,” “drugs,” or “explosives.”

Stay tuned. At the rate things are going, real-live XK9s may come sooner than we think!

IMAGE CREDITS: The cover art for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee. Many thanks to YouTube and Vines Motion for the “Funny Talking Dogs” video compilation, and to NOVA on PBS, for the video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Chaser. The photo montage of Fernie the “reading dog” is courtesy of SWNS / David Hedges, via the Telegraph UK.  I’m grateful to Christina Hunger’s Hungerforwords YouTube channel for the video of Stella using multiple words, and to The Leak Source on YouTube, for the report on K9 Azor’s trip to court. I appreciate you all!