Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Can Dogs Read?

This is one of the most amazing discoveries of the last few years, I think:

The Gorilla Foundation, the one w/ Koko the Gorilla, has made great strides with Koko. They started experimenting with teaching her to read, and she was able to do so! THAT makes sense to me, because her IQ is a human level IQ, about that of a human child. And, of course, human children can read. Also, Koko is great with American Sign Language, which is a human language. So they taught her to read and to use written language to communicate!

What she now does is communicate using words that are printed on hard plastic cards similar to credit cards. Each card has one word on it, and she lays the words out on a table in the order she wants them to be in, to make sentences and say what she wants to say. She even leaves messages about what she's thinking to her keepers when they're gone.

A recent example is that she wrote that she wanted a puppy. They got her one. After one night w/ the puppy she wrote something like "Bad dog, no want". I'm paraphrasing. The dog was playing pretty rough and Koko didn't like that. Koko is extraordinarily gentle. If you haven't read about Koko the Gorilla, you ought to. She has had kittens as pets and treats them the way a mother gorilla would treat a gorilla baby, snuggling and playing gently with them. When her first kitten, All Ball, was killed, she howled with grief.

So, after the first experience w/ the rough puppy, she wasn't so enthusiastic. But then, after a few more nights, she left a message saying something like:
"Good dog. Happy, keep, family, happy holidays" (It was right around Christmas/New Years like it is now as I write this).

So they kept the dog.

This was all happening during the time when they were training Koko to point to words on a board to say what she wanted to say. The DOG was WATCHING, and picked up on the WORDS! I kid you not!

So, within the first day, the dog was touching the words for "potty", "food", and "play", I think. That's pretty close. Anyway, the dog learned 3 words on the first day.

Of course, seeing this, they decided to teach the dog, too!

And here's the really exciting news: YOU can order the board and instructions and teach your own dog to read and to communicate with you by pointing to words on the board. I haven't signed up yet but I am going to try this with Fiona. It'd be crazy not to try. Fiona is an exceptionally fast learner, having learned "sit" and "Fiona come" in one little session. I haven't had a dog since I was a kid, so I am betting that all dogs are about as smart as Fiona. I read about a border collie who learned words faster than a 5 year old kid in a controlled study (article is in the National Geographic, March 2008).

Having looked at the board, it's hard not to notice that there are symbols above the words, so I can't say whether the dogs are responding to the symbols or the words themselves. I wonder how well they'd do without the symbols....

On the other hand, it's impossible not to notice that dogs can understand an awful lot of what we say to them. Fiona understands the difference between going for a ride, going for a walk, going to Grandma's, going to the puppy park, going poopeepee (yes, ridiculous as it sounds), going out, going in, going "up" (getting into the car). And that's just variations of "going". She is also very good at using gestures and vocalizations to tell me what she wants. I didn't teach her to sratch at the door w/ one paw to say she wants out, but she does it to tell me she needs to go out and "poopoopeepee".

One of her dog friends, a Chihuahua, of all breeds, named Martini, came to my door w/ her owner one morning at 9:45am. After that, Fiona paced in front of the door and howled at around 9:45am every morning. I took that to mean she wants to play w/ Martini, of course, so we arranged for her and Martini to play all afternoon recently and then she stopped the pacing and howling at 9:45am.

If she wants to specifically go the puppy park, she indicates my hiking boots, which I wear to the puppy park (really it's a dog park), because the terrain is rough and the dogs are rowdy. She knows I wear those shoes there so she tells me that's where she wants to go by indicating those shoes.

And on it goes. So the communication is two ways. I know this isn't news to any dog owner. It was news when it was a Barn Owl communicating so well, because we just didn't know it was possible, and their wild nature and peoples' misunderstanding of Barn Owls lead to a lack of communication between the species. Those walls of misunderstanding had to be broken down before we were able to realize just how able the Barn Owl was as a communicator! Amazing!

But the dog? Most of us have seen dogs or read about dogs doing amazing things and communicating very well. Look at Lassie! She had to learn how to tell the family, on a near daily basis, that Timmy had yet again thrown himself down the well out of sheer boredom, apparently. Did the parents ever think to cap the well or put a locked lid on it? No. I think they secretly enjoyed that little bit of excitement, every day, when Lassie came to them whining and barking, and they pretended not to know that Timmy was down the well, humoring the dog by saying, "What is it girl? What is it?" As if they didn't know, after all these years of Timmy down the well. But I digress....

I was thinking that we ought to try this communication board w/ our dogs together. Those of you who have dogs ought to also order the board and instructions, and we ought to all work on it and we could share our progress and results with each other through the comment section of the blog and the blog itself.

what do you think? I think it would be fascinating, and we could all be doing a behavior/animal intelligence experiment together! I'm not saying it would be easy, but it would certainly be an adventure!

Here's the page with the information and brief instructions:


And this is the pdf of the board itself:


Please let me know, through the comments section, if you've downloaded it and how it's going w/ the doggie!

Stacey O'Brien


Fran said...

I have seen Koko several times on TV Stacey, it's an amazing clever gorilla. It sounds great that you are going to teach Fiona sign language. Keep us informed how she evolves.
My best wishes for 2010 Stacey.
Take care!

Ter-o-fla said...

I would love to do this, but I do not have a dog. I doubt that my cat would cooperate much.. but I may try.
Do keep us informed!