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
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star