Dog lovers will tell you that their dogs know their names and understand a whole lot more besides. However, many people don’t believe that’s true. Animals, they say, lack our awareness.Clever experiments suggest the argument has been settled.
In 2004 scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig reported in the journal Science that a border collie called Rico had learned to fetch more than 200 objects by name.
As the dog is German and the trials took place in Germany, they asked Rico, “Wo ist der Banane (Where's the banana)?” whereupon he rushed into the next room, searched among his toys, and brought back the banana stuffy, earning himself top marks.
The researchers concluded that Rico attached meaning to sounds, something human children learn to do when they are toddlers.
Several studies have made similar conclusions, including a recent trial in 2020 where researchers at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, tried to see if dogs could distinguish between real words and nonsense words.
They took 17 trained dogs who knew words like “sit” and “stay” and fitted them with sensors (using removable glue to fix suction cup scanners to their heads for a few minutes, nothing nasty or invasive) that measured electrophysiological brain activity.
The tester then played a tape with a mix of real commands, like sit, almost correct commands like sid or si, and then with nonsense words, like flughst.
The dogs' electrophysiological brain activity showed they recognised the commands and almost perfect commands but there was no significant reaction for the nonsense words.
The researchers took this to mean the dog are not great at noticing mistakes; possibly, dogs just know we mess up a lot.