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July 21, 2009 Posted by | General | Leave a comment

Dog learns to read?

Willow follows the directions on a sign held up by her trainer.

Willow follows the directions on a sign held up by her trainer.

I told you that Blue and Pearl have been going to training classes.  I’ve always been in awe of the things that people can teach their dogs to do.  I know that dogs are incredibly smart.  But when I saw the following story today I really had to shake my head.  I found it hard to believe.  I’m still not sure how the dog has learned to do these things.

See what you think.

Woman teaches dog to read

New York animal trainer Lyssa Rosenberg has taught her terrier to obey simple written commands.

Willow plays dead when she sees the word ‘bang’, stretches a paw in the air when she sees ‘wave’ and gets up on her back feet to beg when she sees the words ‘sit up’.

“She’s an unbelievably quick learner,” said Ms Rosenberg, who has trained other dogs to appear in TV adverts and pose on photo shoots.

“She can do 250 different things and I used to joke that I would teach her how to pour me a martini. Then for a bet I told a friend I would teach her to read. He promised me a free trip to Mexico if I could do it.

“It took her just six weeks to recognise words and respond to them. And it isn’t just my handwriting she understands. My friend printed the words Willow learned off the computer and she reacted to them.

“Well I won the bet and Willow came with me to Mexico.”

Willow has her own pet passport and regularly flies transatlantic to visit Ms Rosenberg’s husband Gareth Howells, in Guildford, Surrey.

Willow was also the second witness at the couple’s wedding at New York City Hall in March – signing the marriage certificate with an inky paw print.

Ms Rosenberg even takes the 10lb English terrier mix on business trips because Willow is more than happy to share her carrying case with other animals.

“I once had to fly from California back to New York with a rabbit and two guinea pigs. Going through airport security was hilarious because first I pulled out the rabbit from the bag, followed by the guinea pigs and then the dog.”

Now, how on earth is little Willow able to see and recognize words and know what she’s supposed to do from a training standpoint?  Is this really what we would call “reading”?  I know that Koko the gorilla uses sign language to communicate and can read signs that appear on a computer screen.  That’s one way that she and her handlers communicate.  (Koko has a working vocabulary of over 1000 signs. Koko understands approximately 2,000 words of spoken English. She initiates the majority of conversations with her human companions and typically constructs statements averaging three to six words. Koko has a tested IQ of between 70 and 95 on a human scale, where 100 is considered “normal.”)

So, is Willow the terrier doing something similar to what Koko does?  Is she reading and understanding words as signs for what her owner wants her to do?  Or is there something else going on?  Would Willow be able to follow these commands if someone else showed her the words without her owner present?  Could her owner somehow be tipping her off to what she’s supposed to do, perhaps without even knowing it?

Rico knows over 200 words and seems to have learning abilities like a human toddler.

Rico knows over 200 words and seems to have learning abilities like a human toddler.

There’s no way to tell from this brief story but dogs probably can learn to read the signs for specific actions, if they haven’t learned to do so yet.  In many intelligence tests dogs have scored favorably with chimps and other primates.  In fact, in some tests dogs have been shown to have learning abilities very similar to those of human toddlers.

In 2004 a 9-year-old Border Collie named Rico caught the attention of the world with his remarkable language skills.

[Rico] apparently understands a vocabulary of 200 words—most of them in German—has led scientists to conclude that the remarkable dog has language-learning ability comparable, in some ways, to a human toddler. Their findings raise anew the question of whether language is strictly a human trait…

Like a young human child, Rico can quickly form rough hypotheses about the meaning of a new word after a single exposure by inferring that the new word is connected to an object he is seeing for the first time. That suggests to scientists that the ability to understand sounds is not necessarily related to the ability to speak, and that some aspects of speech comprehension evolved earlier than, and independent from, human speech.

Personally, I think Rico should get extra credit for learning things in German.

When you have dogs like Willow and Rico who seem to have such exceptional abilities it does make you wonder if all dogs are able to learn this way or if these are special cases.  Can your dogs and my dogs do these things?  I don’t know but perhaps we should be careful about the books we leave lying around for our dogs to find.

July 21, 2009 Posted by | dogs, Pets | , , , , , | Leave a comment