Boning up on grammar: Researchers teach border collie to understand sentences using more than 1,000 words


Chaser the border collie has swapped sheep and shepherds for syntax and semantics. The black and white sheepdog has not only learnt and remembered more than 1,000 proper nouns but she has also grasped some of the finer points of English grammar, according to researchers in the United States who have studied her.

University academics who have tested her knowledge believe the results show the dog learned, like children, to respond in the right way to different types of words. "Our findings showed that Chaser was successful in demonstrating syntax and semantic understanding on 75 per cent of the trials," say the researchers. They say the dog was able to demonstrate understanding of nouns and verbs which represents a giant leap in her "understanding of language and opens the door for learning further language skills."

The study, involving more than seven years of teaching and research on the border collie, was published in the journal Learning and Motivation. The dog, born in 2004, lived in the home of the researchers, primarily as a member of the family, but also as a target for research.

In the first three years, she learned and remembered 1,022 proper nouns. The objects included more than 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees, and another 100 plastic toys. There were no duplicates, and each had unique features so it could be identified. Each was also given a distinctive name, like elephant or Santa Claus.

The dog built up and maintained knowledge of the nouns over a 32-month period. Each month, she was tested on the entire vocabulary, and each time she was able to identify correctly more than 95 per cent of the objects.

The researchers say Chaser's ability to learn and remember so many words, involving discrimination, memory, and other skills, revealed clear evidence of the potential for learning to understand human language.

Not content with their canine's memory skills, the researchers set about teaching the dog grammar. The object of this research was to investigate Chaser's ability to understand the syntax and semantics of sentences consisting of three elements of grammar – a prepositional object, a verb, and a direct object – such as "to ball take Frisbee" and the inverse "to Frisbee take ball" or "to A take B" and the inverse, "to B take A".

Not only did it require the dog to recognise the 100 toys chosen for the experiment, but she also had to take the right ones to the correct destination. Findings showed that Chaser was successful in demonstrating syntax and semantic understanding on 18 of the 24 trials, or 75 per cent of the time. She could also respond to novel objects.

"Thus, after learning the name of the objects, she was able, as are children, to understand the meaning of the sentences even though the objects had never been used in the syntax sentence," say the researchers from Wofford College in North Carolina.

"The combined findings of the three studies support the conclusion that Chaser did, indeed, process and retain memories of prepositional and direct objects.

"The findings closely match the data obtained in dolphin studies involving sentences consisting of three elements of grammar.

"We propose that Chaser's understanding of the three elements of grammar in sentences evolved out of her intensive training for learning the meaning of specific words, and different types of words developed greater sensitivity for verbal symbols and referential cues. In some way, whether by cognitive processes, associative processes, by the inherent properties of different types of words themselves, or by the combination of all three mechanisms, Chaser learned, as do children, to respond appropriately to different classes of words."

They said that the experiments revealed that the dog's understanding of words was not simply confined to memorising strings of words by rote. "Rather, in some way, her brain is partially constructed like that of humans," the researchers said.

Suggested Topics
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam