Dogs are smarter than you think

January 11, 2011 • 9:09 am

. . . well, at least one dog: Chaser, a female border collie born in 2004.  Because of their marked inferiority to felids (the King of Pets), I don’t usually feature goggies on this website.  But this bit of research, published in Behavioural Processes, was too good to pass up.

When I lived in Scotland, the one television show I never missed was the BBC’s “One Man and His Dog,” in which border collies and their owners would vie for a prize in sheepherding. Despite my indifference to dogs, I was fascinated at the skill with which these dogs herded errant packs of sheep using commands from their owners.  I was sad to hear that the show was canceled, though Wikipedia says it’s still alive. (UK readers: is it?)

Border collies are clearly alert and intelligent beasts, and this new paper demonstrates it, showing that they have a stunning ability to learn and (supposedly) to combine nouns and commands, an ability to recognize that objects have names, and a talent for distinguishing different commands about how to deal with those objects.

The paper, bearing the turgid title of “Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents” (free online, and you can see a summary/press release here), is by John Pilley and Alliston Reid, two psychologists at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  I don’t want to produce a long summary, for the paper is well written and easily comprehensible to laypeople. Further, you can read the press release for a shorter take.  I’ll just discuss the salient points here.  Do consult the paper if you’re worried about controls, etc., since the experiments did seem well controlled.

Also, the link to the paper will take you to four videos (on the right) that you can play to see Chaser’s talents for yourself.

Fig. 1.  Chaser, the erudite border collie

Over a period of three years, Pilley and Reid trained Chaser to recognize various objects: toys, stuffed animals, plastic items, etc., by telling the dog to “go to” that item and fetch it. (They eliminated the “clever Hans” effect by having the owner give orders when out of sight of the dog.)  Once Chaser had learned to fetch a number of these items, they did further experiments. There were four in total.

  • First, the learning of names.  Chaser’s ability here was astounding: at the end of the training period, she had learned the names of 1,022 objects, and was able to reproduce them faithfully, almost without error.   In one series of tests, for example, a group of 20 of the 1022 objects would be dispersed randomly on the floor.  Chaser was then asked to select one item out of the 20.   Then he would be asked to select another without replacement (order random, of course), and then another, until all 20 were gone.  This was done in more than 50 successive trials, until all 1000-odd objects had been used.  This meta-test often took many hours.

Amazingly, in no test—and there were many of them—did Chaser make more than two mistakes (in other words, she always got at least 18 objects correct). And she retained this ability to remember names for at least two years after training, as shown by retesting when she was five.

Here are some of the objects Chaser learned, with their names on the left (click to enlarge):

  • Second, understanding new combinations of different words. What seems to be the Big Result of the paper, but one that doesn’t completely convince me, is the authors’ contention that Chaser “understood the separate meanings of proper-noun names and commands.”  What they did was first train Chaser to perform three actions, apparently using objects that were not part of her previously-learned repertoire. These commands were “take” (i.e., fetch), “paw,” and “nose.”  Then, once the commands were learned, Chaser was given combination commands using only three of the 1,022 objects combined with a requested action.  For example, “take lamb,” or “nose lips” (this was an object resembling human lips), or “paw ABC” (a cloth cube with those letters on it).  Note that the dog had learned the commands and the objects separately, and had never been given a directive that combined them.  This was her first exposure to the two-word commands.

There were 14 trials (see Table 1 of the paper), and Chaser did the right thing all 14 times.  The cumulative probability that this would happen by chance alone is 0.000000000000044.  It would have been nice to do this with all 1,022 objects to get a better judgment on Chaser’s “combinatorial” abilities, but this is still telling. Chaser was obviously able to combine an action command with a noun command, demonstrating (to the authors) that she has “combinatorial understanding.”  As the authors say, “She responded as though the commands and the proper-noun names were independent entities or morphemes Thus, in effect, Chaser treated phrases like ‘fetch sock’ as though the ‘sock was a sock and not a ‘fetch sock’—indicting [sic?] that her nouns referred to objects.”

This does demonstrate combinatorial abilities, which is pretty remarkable.  My only quibble is whether Chaser understood the term “sock” as a noun by itself, or rather as a combination noun, “go to [i.e., “fetch”] sock”, which is the way she learned “sock”; and that this combination-noun was overriden by a third term, like “nose,” that preceded the object. In other words, while I’m convinced of Chaser’s combinatorial abilities, I’m not convinced that she learned that the objects really were nouns that weren’t attached to verb commands.

  • Third, learning different noun categories.  Chaser was trained to recognize not just the 1,022 names of objects, but also their classification under the rubric “toys.”  She was also taught to distinguish these from a large number of other objects that she had not been allowed to play with.  After training, 8 toys and 8 non-toys were strewn about and, with the investigator hidden, Chaser was asked to “fetch a toy.”   She was then asked again, and the objects were not replaced after being fetched.  She performed perfectly.

Beyond this broad category, Chaser was also trained to recognize those 116 objects that were balls under the name of “ball.”  She was likewise trained to recognize 26 of her disk-like toys under the name of “frisbee.”  She was again tested with 8 balls and 8 “non-balls”, and also with 8 frisbees and 8 “non-frisbees” (i.e., “fetch a frisbee”).   In both cases she performed perfectly, even though she knew each of those objects not only as “ball” of “frisbee”, but also by their unique name and the general name of “toy.”  Here is a sample trial showing 8 frisbees and 8 non-frisbees:

  • Fourth, learning words by exclusion.  In the last experiment, Chaser was asked to retrieve novel objects with novel names.  There were 64 of these novelties, which differed from the 1022 objects whose names she had already learned.  One of the novelties was placed with seven familiar objects.  In the first two commands, Chaser was asked to fetch a familiar object. In the third, she was asked to bring a novel object with a novel name, one she hadn’t heard before.  This forced her to discriminate by exclusion.  She was successful eight times out of eight.  Remarkable! However, this ability to remember novelty decayed quicky: in other tests, conducted immediately after the successful novelty trial, then ten minutes later, then 24 hours later, she was often unable to pick the novel named item out of a group of four novel and four familiar items.  After 24 hours, her memory for the novel ones had decayed completely.

I think even caninophiles would be surprised by Chaser’s talents, which, of course, could probably be seen in other border collies—though not necessarily other dog breeds.  Her abilities far exceeded anything necessary or useful in ancestral canids—dogs, after all, don’t have to remember names in the wild, though they certainly do have to recognize different conspecific individuals (but not 1022 of them!).  Part of her performance is probably due to a co-option of brainpower used for other things (just like humans can learn to read music using neurons evolved for other reasons), and part to the fact that border collies are trained to recognize different commands.  I’m not an expert on dogs, and I bet there are border-collie owners among the readers, so by all means recount your experiences or theories about the dogs.

Of course, any random cat could do exactly what Chaser did—and much more.  It just wouldn’t want to!


h/t: Matthew Cobb

Pilley, J. W., and A. K. Reid. 201o.  Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents.  Behavioural Processes, in press. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2010.11.007

42 thoughts on “Dogs are smarter than you think

  1. I worked with border collie sheep dogs once upon a time in Montana, and I was astounded at how smart they were. You tell them where to go and what to do, and they do it.

      1. Of course, any random cat grad student could do exactly what Chaser did—and much more. It just wouldn’t want to!

      2. This makes them smarter than graduate students!
        I almost make a quip along these lines, but I restrained myself.

  2. Vet neighbour and friend’s dog was a border collie who did the same sort of thing… but understood the same objects in English, French, and German. Also played the piano, but badly. Was trained to compete in agility once upon a time, and many years later saw the jump command from the owner after both had exited the car in a three story parking garage (they were on the second story). Yup… dog jumped over the nearest wall without hesitation and broke only a front leg. No difference in the quality of piano playing could later be detected by human ears.

  3. Our 1 year old Aussie Shepherd is starting to develop these traits and we’re working with her more and more. Along with physical exercise, Borders and Aussies need a lot of mental exercise (so to speak). Believe me, if you don’t come up with fun things to do with them, they’ll do it themselves – sometimes with destructive consequences…

    1. Two of our fell-walking friends have a border collie who walks with us. As long as she walks at least 5 miles a day, preferably up and down a mountain or two, she’s well behaved. If not, she gets into trouble.

      They are her 4th home — she was a terror until they adopted her. But with enough exercise, she’s fine.

    2. Too true. A friends aussie mix has learned to paw at the refrigerator to open the door. He had to install a ‘child-proof’ lock to have any groceries when he gets home.

  4. We do have sheepdog trials here in this country! The Bluegrass Classic is the largest in the midwest:

    I participate in sheepdog trials with my dogs (shelties, not border collies). The thing about border collies is that for generations they have been breed solely for working ability. Other dog breeds have been bred to a written standard that includes factors other than working ability… coat color, height, planes of the face, that sort of thing. Over generations it tends to “dumb down” the breed, to the point where many herding dogs no longer have natural instinct, and you have to seek out special working lines to get a puppy with innate ability. I train alongside border collies in herding and can tell you that it takes months to train most other herding breeds to the level that a good border collie has innately.

    Things are likely to change now that BCs have AKC recognition (which includes a written standard). We’re currently seeing a split in the breed between AKC BCs (the minority) and the traditional registry, and I’m betting in a few generations the AKC BCs will also start to lose their working ability.

    1. I love the sheltie. I wish I had one; all the ones I’ve met don’t seem to need any training, they just behave well. And the kids just go crazy about them too.

  5. I used to know a couple who had a young Shiatsu (not more than a year or so old) who could distinguish from amongst about 30 different stuffed toys, rummage through a pile of them on the floor, and come back with the one asked for. The owner would say,

    “Get me the lobster,”

    and the dog would go an search through the pile of toys until it found the stuffed lobster. There were about thirty of them (that’s just a rough guess now), all thoroughly mixed up in a pile, and the dog would sort through the pile until it had found the one asked for, so Chaser’s ability seems to me not all that unusual.

    1. Maybe unusual in degree. My pound pup (shepherd-husky?) has always been able to distinguish between a hard rubber (kong) toy and her current stuffed one. The stuffed ones don’t tend to last too long so I’ve no clue how many she might be able to differentiate. She will search from room to room to bring back the one requested.

  6. Most dogs seem a little dopey to me, but I once was friends with a couple who owned a toy poodle who not only knew a large number of words, but could understand the syntax of fairly complex sentences, as in “Wendy, get your leash and take it to Craig.” She would do it without hesitation. Very eerie.

    1. Poodles are smart–ours certainly was, and understood maybe a dozen words (we she knew them because she would become visibly excited when she heard, for example, “squirrel” regardless of the tone of voice used or whether we were addressing her). My sis used to tease her dogs sometimes by making up sentences using all the words they knew (“There are treats and squirrels out in the car!”).

      Of course cats understand, too–but it would just be so gauche to respond ;-))

      “…could understand syntax of fairly complex sentences.” Which is to say–commands. That’s exactly how I taught my students to understand German–by responding to ever-more-complex commands (TPR= Total Physical Response). In humans, speech emerges naturally after a certain level of understanding is attained and reinforced by knowing that one has performed the command correctly.

  7. One man and his dog was back on in the UK just around Xmas past. Good show.

    Also, about a year back the BBC had one of it’s Horizon (in the US it’s Nova isn’t it?) called “The Secret History of the Dog”.

    Here’s a link to some clips but sadly not the full programme – might be on youtube maybe. I think I have it burned at home on DVD.

    Amyway, aside from dipping into the usual grey wolf common ancestor stuff they also had a german border collie with a remarkable memory for names, although less than the example above.

    The really remarkable thing was that this collie would retrieve the correct toys from another room not just when prompted by a verbal command but also when only shown a 2D picture of the toy in question. This is apparently on a par with the skills humans develop as 2 year olds. Stunning stuff.

    Not sure if they addressed the clever Hans phenomenon though…..

    One thing my wife and I are both sure of however is that neither of our two Westies will ever get close to replicating these amazing memory feats!

  8. What a pleasure it is to read about dogs instead of cats… When are you going to allow canines to post here too? I can’t help thinking they would be better spellers.


  9. I owned a border collie several years ago. Rescued her from the pound. Why someone would give up such a sweet thing, I’ll never know.

    She was bright, gentle and a natural herder. She used to “round up” the neighbor kids, which they loved. It was a little game they shared. She herded them, and then they got to pet her.

    1. I grew up with a border collie. Same thing: Matt herded the kids.

      Matt also learned many words without our family even trying to teach him any.

      He also served as my father’s identification card. Dad would take Matt along when he ran errands. He forgot his wallet one time. The shopkeeper saw Matt sitting obediently outside the store and told Dad, “I don’t know your name, sir, but I recognize your dog. Just pay me the next time you come in.

      Border collies: honorary cats.

  10. Meh, my wife’s mini schnauzer only understands about 15-20 commands and to my knowledge, no combinations. However, he does actually understand the actual words themselves. He won’t respond to commands he only knows in Chinese when spoken in English (with the same tone of voice insofar as that is possible). But compared to Chaser, he pretty dumb.

  11. There is a reason why Border Collies are known, in the British Dog Obedience world as ‘Black-and-white-robots’ – they have an ability to learn commands, and carry out orders flawlessly and tirelessly – long after any other breed has given up and gone to look for food.

  12. In a different category of intelligence, I once knew a mutt who was an obsessive fetcher. One could select a stone, show it to him and throw it into an area containing many other stones. He always returned with exactly the selected stone. Probably used scent, you will say. Fair enough, but there is more. Tired of the game before he was, we selected six or eight recognizable stones,threw them in different directions in rapid succession and went inside. When we came out the next morning, the entire set was neatly lined up on the porch. Not a controlled experiment, but it seem to imply some rapidly acquired memory of the number of thrown objects and at least the general directions in which they were thrown. This was a rugged rural area with tall grass, shrubbery and an abundance of rocks of all shapes and sizes, so exhaustive search of the entire area seems unlikely.

  13. Meh, I can beat my dog at chess at least two our of three games.
    He usually takes me at checkers, though. (Nixon joke for other old guys.)

  14. Goggies!

    Haven’t had a goggie in many years so these are some interactions with friends dogs. These are summaries because the details would make the comment too long.

    Yellow lab and kitteh:
    Friends expressed that their dog and (new) kitty hated each other. I noticed the lab showed interest in kitty but kitty was very afraid of dog, hissing and arching of back, which would scare dog and set off a series of unfriendly exchanges. I caught the kitty and held it firmly while touching kittehs nose to goggies nose, then gently placing kitteh on goggies back. Which resulted in the kitteh running away quickly as I loosen my hold. However, in the following days they became friends.

    Doberman and lost tool:
    Exceptional dog, trained by socialization as opposed to commands, had an absolute love for human infants. Anyway, lost tool in long grassy area. Several weeks later was in same area when dog came up and displayed actions that seemed like wanting me to follow, which I tried to ignore but she started pushing on my leg rather forcefully so I finally followed her. She took me a short distance and then sat and appeared to want me to look at something but I couldn’t see or figure out what. She seemed to loose interest and wandered away. However, I remembered that my tool might be in that area, so I looked more closely and found it!

    Doberman (different) and toasty warm:
    This dog had been lightly trained for protection, the first time I met it the owner told the dog to guard me while she left the room, stating that if I didn’t want to get bit I better not move ( I moved a wee little bit and was convince that further movement would be dangerous.) However, several months later, my friend was out of town and asked me to retrieve the dog from a kennel and keep it at my house for a few weeks. Dog was usually left outside in all weather by owner but I thought it was too cold so brought the dog in at night. Dog curled up next to my bed and would soon put its snoozle up on my arm, which I noticed would shake as her body shivered. In an attempt to remedy this I found a big old pillow and put it down on the dogs sleeping spot. Dog didn’t like it, tried to move it away and wouldn’t get on the pillow. I picked dog up and gently held it on the pillow for a short time, dog decided pillow was good! However, the snoozle on arm soon alerted me that shivers weren’t completely gone. I found an old blanket but dog didn’t want it on, so I did similar as with the pillow and dog decided blanket was good too! One night shortly after getting into bed dog got up and left room (dog had never before voluntarily left my side.) Minutes later I heard some rustling in the hallway and looked up to see dog dragging the blanket backwards down the hall, I had forgotten. I also had no idea that dog knew where blanket was stored or would have any notion of how to get the blanket from storage to bed.

    Mixed breed (probably included border collie) climbs fence and new igloo:
    Very attentive dog, always interested in actions of other animals including humans. Dog was getting out of pen at night (neighbor’s reports of seeing dog were dismissed as dog would be in fenced pen in morning) One day, saw dog partially on fence while using a nearby branch to support itself. Removed branch, dog seemed very upset at me. Also (same dog), owner acquired a molded plastic dog house (possibly originally intended as child’s play house) that was shaped like an igloo. Tried to get dog to go in but dog didn’t seem to like the echoing that paws would cause when placed on the inner plastic floor, dog would start in but quickly back out when echoing noise started. In an attempt to show dog it was OK, I tried to get in but was only able to fit about half my torso inside. Dog seemed amused but still wouldn’t go in. The next time I went over, the dog was acting unusual, seemed excited and wanting my visual attention. Dog hurried over to igloo went in (halfway!) laid down while madly wagging tail.

  15. There is something erotic about the word “turgid”. Oh, I’m sorry. Wrong, place, wrong time. What were we talking about again?

  16. So could it be said that the border collie has specifically been bred with intelligence in mind, or is it just a positive byproduct of its intended specialization? Has there been any research in specifically breeding dogs for intelligence? I wonder what kind of cognitive abilities would emerge…

  17. As a dog owner, I’m not surprised. We don’t pretend, we know dogs are actually smart(er)…unlike those cat lovers.

  18. The training is extremely important though; the dog’s untrained behavior is not good at all. A friend kept a border collie as a pet, so she was never trained. Unfortunately as he tried to herd his cattle, the damned dog would herd them to the gate and before he could open the gate she’d scatter the cattle just so she could herd them again. She thought it was great fun; my friend was trying to resist the temptation to go home and get his shotgun. This collie’s other favorite sport was running behind horses and hanging off their tails; she’s the only dog I’d known to do that and consistently avoid being kicked.

  19. My dog is pretty much dumb as bricks. He runs into walls that were always there and can’t remember who is in the next room. However he always remembers where his blue rubber bone is, and will go get it if asked, including freaking out at the door until someone opens it if necessary. Funnily enough, he found that bone in an abandoned back yard and has had it for four years now; it hasn’t worn out yet.

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