Symbolic Understanding in Dogs
The use of symbols in communication has long been considered to be solely the domain of humans, great apes, cetaceans and a few bird species. Human children typically start to understand basic vocal and gestural symbols at about a year of age. By the time that most children are 2 to 3 years old, they are also able to understand the concepts of images and replicas. As reported in Science News, a recent study demonstrated that dogs appear to be capable of a similar level of symbolic understanding.
Border collies quickly realize that their owners want them to fetch a toy from another room when shown a full-size or miniature replica of the desired item and given a command to “bring it here,” say biological psychologist Juliane Kaminski of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and her colleagues. Even a photograph of a toy works with some dogs as a signal to fetch that toy from an unseen location, the researchers report in an upcoming issue of Developmental Science.
Three dogs already trained to fetch objects succeeded on both replica tasks right away. Two untrained dogs got the hang of replica requests after a bit of practice.
“The most reasonable interpretation of dogs’ success in the replica tasks is that they understood that by showing a replica, a human was trying to communicate something to them,” Kaminski says. Dogs evolved a feel for how people communicate as a result of living in human settlements for thousands of years, she proposes.
Earlier studies have found that chimps, dolphins and other nonhuman animals have great difficulty retrieving objects after being shown replicas of those objects, even after many trials.
Dogs appear to have an innate ability to understand human gestures and body language. Chimps (like the famous Washoe) and African Grey Parrots (like Alex) have demonstrated the ability to be taught sign or spoken language. Now it appears that Dr. Bonnie Bergin’s idea that dogs can learn to recognize and respond appropriately to written word and symbol cues may have been ahead of its time. Her “teaching dogs to read” appears to be just a short step away from their now demonstrated ability to grasp the idea of images and replicas.
Coincidentally, I have been working with young Audie for a couple of months on these kins of exercises. I’ve successfully taught him to search for, find and then bring me an item that matches one I’ve shown him. We’ve done this with a wide range of objects (shoes, boots, metal bowls, pens, bumpers, spoons, business cards and more). Sometimes the object I send him to find is in a different room. Quite often I don’t know where it is (hence the need to have him find it). Still, he gets it right nearly every time.
The question that arises from this is; are dogs innately capable of these kinds of symbolic learning skills or does the ability only arise from a certain degree of training? I suspect it’s a combination of both. SAR work (like explosive and narcotics detection work) takes advantage of a dog’s ability to use scent as a symbol for the object he’s seeking. In Learning to Smell, Donald Wilson and Richard Stevenson propose that smells “are outcomes of highly synthetic, memory-dependent processing that is further modulated by expectation, context, and internal state” and they compare the process of learning how to smell to that of learning how to read.
Perhaps the combination of being a neotenized, highly social, scent-reading species that co-evolved with humans and has an innate skill to observe and interpret our behavior makes dogs uniquely well-equipped for certain types of symbolic learning. How much are they able understand? Well, since they’re poorly equipped to talk or sign back to us we’ll have to wait a while longer to find out.
I’ll try to shoot and upload some video of Audie and I working on the “match game” this week.