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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Business Project Manager

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project Manager job vaca...

Business Analyst (Agile, SDLC, software)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Marketing Executive, London

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly prestigious luxury b...

SAP BPC Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BPC Consultant - 6 Months - London ...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor