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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life