Part 1, Language.
Four Things Dogs Know Nothing About and One They Know By Heart
Originally Published on November 26, 2016.
Do Dogs Understand Human Language?
Recently I came across a list of amazing cognitive abilities that dogs reportedly have, all based on recent studies and research. The list was posted on National Geographic’s website. In my view most of the studies cited created artificial results based on confirmation bias, which in turn is probably based on a partial reading of Darwin’s words on the differences in consciousness between humans and animals.
In their paper, "Darwin's Mistake," Derek Penn, Keith Holyoake, and Daniel Povinellis write: "Over the last quarter century, the dominant tendency in comparative cognitive psychology has been to emphasize the similarities between human and nonhuman minds, and to downplay the differences."
I think this tendency comes from something Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man (1871): “There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense. Nevertheless, the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”
However, what most people forget is that a few sentences later Darwin wrote: “We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals. They are also capable of some inherited improvement as we see in the domestic dog compared with the wolf or jackal. If it could be proved that certain high mental powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of the continued use of a highly-developed language.”
So even though Darwin said he thought it doubtful that certain mental powers could only be found exclusively in human beings, he opened the door to the possibility that he might be wrong, and that the primary difference was our ability to use and understand language.
Also note that Darwin put dogs higher on the scale of cognition than wolves and jackals. Yet there are certain abilities that wolves and jackals have that dogs don’t. In my view, that’s because dogs don’t need to be as smart as those species because of their relationship with humans.
Failing to Teach Language to Some Very Smart Animals
So, according to Darwin, the ability to use language is what differentiates humans from all other animals. That hasn’t stopped scientists from attempting to teach other species to speak, sign or show some indications that they’re capable of at least some linguistic ability. These test animals include the chimp Nim Chimsky Alex the parrot, Kanzi, a bonobo, and a gorilla named Koko. They were all thought to have some incipient linguistic ability.
However, Irene Pepperberg, who spent years teaching Alex to “parrot” English, said that Alex was not using human language. Linguist Noam Chomsky argued that his communication skills were the result of conditioning and didn’t reflect a real understanding of words, syntax, etc.
In a video of Kanzi the bonobo—shown several years ago on Charlie Rose—Kanzi followed a number of simple instructions from his trainer Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, and he seems to be responding to her words. But at one point Savage-Rumbaugh says, “Kanzi, pour the Perrier water...” then pauses ever-so slightly. During that pause, Kanzi reaches for a jelly jar instead of the bottle of Perrier. Then Savage-Rumbaugh finishes her sentence, “...in the jelly.” It’s only then that Kanzi picks up the bottle of Perrier and pours it into the jelly jar he’s already holding (1:29).
That’s where the video shown on Charlie Rose ended. Rose gave his patented grin of sheer amazement at Kanzi’s ability to understand human language. Neither he nor his guest that night, Jeffrey Kluger of Time Magazine, noticed the fact that Kanzi had acted out of sequence. If he’d only been responding to his handlers words, and had understood them, he would’ve reached for the Perrier bottle first, then waited to hear where he was supposed to pour it.
Does this mean that Savage-Rumbaugh “cheated?” It’s hard to say. What it does mean is that something other than a linguistic ability was probably at play; the behavior had either been “rehearsed” so many times that Kanzi automatically reached for the jelly jar, or else it shows that animals can pick up mental images from us telepathically.
Language Acquisition Starts in the Womb
The point is that even with all the years of effort Pepperberg, Savage-Rumbaugh and others have put into attempting to teach and show that language is not the dividing line between human and animal consciousness, nothing has ever come of it. Language is something that only humans have the capacity for.
So when an esteemed author like Stanley Coren writes, in The Intelligence of Dogs, “We say ‘Give me your hand’ to a child and grant it some linguistic ability when it does so. Obviously, then, the dog’s response to ‘Give me paw’ also represents equivalent linguistic ability.”
Does it? For instance, if instead of saying to a child “Give me your hand” you say “Give me your paw,” she may laugh or argue with you: “No! Not paw! Hand!” But if you’ve trained your dog to give paw, and you hold out your hand and say, “Give me your hand” or “Give me your foot” or “Give me your money,” the dog will automatically give you his paw despite all the other nouns you’ve thrown at him. That’s because “Give me paw” is is a learned behavior, connected to a familiar set of behavioral circumstances. It does not in any way denote actual language.
In fact, going back to the child, if you hold out your hand and say, “Shake,” the child could respond in two ways. The first would be to shake your hand. But once she understands that “shake” can mean more than one thing, she might dance, shaking her body and giggling instead of shaking your hand.
We’re now learning that language development take place much younger than was previously thought, perhaps starting in the womb, and that infants raised in multi-lingual households recognize the differences in syntax in both languages. The science on how and when human children develop their ability to use and understand language puts us far beyond any possible correlation with the way dogs responds to our verbal cues.
Gleep When I Say “Gleep!”
In an article for the British newspaper, The Guardian, Lucy Ward quotes several people living in mulit-linguial households in Britain, including a woman from India named Pri Bramford.
“I grew up in India speaking Hindi and English, and my husband Christofer is also bilingual: he grew up in Stockholm speaking Swedish with his mother and English with his British father. When we moved to the UK in 2002 and had our two boys … we agreed that Christofer would speak to them in Swedish and I would speak to them in Hindi.”
She goes on to say, “Even our dog, Melman, uses all our languages – he understands ‘walk’ in Hindi (ghumi-ghumi), mealtimes in English (brekkie) and at night we take him out for a wee in Swedish (go kissa).”
The thing is, though, you could as easily teach a dog to obey all these commands and more using nonsense words rather than words from different languages: the dog will make the connection. In fact, it would be harder for us to remember all the nonsense words we might make up than it would be for a dog, just as it would be harder for people who don’t understand Hindi or Swedish to know what Pri and Christofer are saying to Melman. than it is for Melman to understand and obey his commands.
The Bottom Line
It doesn’t matter what language you use, or whether you use any known language at all. You can just as easily teach a dog to sit by using a made-up word like “gleep” as you can by saying “sit.” If the dog has been trained to sit when you say “Gleep!” he’ll sit when you say “Gleep!”
Of course this would confuse anyone who saw you doing it. But unlike the dog, a human onlooker would have a distinct ability to dispel any confusion, an ability no dog could ever have. Why? Because if a human asked you questions they would have the ability to understand your answers. Dogs can't ask questions or understand our answers.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
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