Many animals are language-trained – dolphins, parrots, bonobos, and dogs can be taught to respond to hundreds of spoken signals associated with different objects. Yet, dogs learn differently from other animals.
For example, give a child a red block and a green block and ask for the chromium, not the red block. Most children, even if they don’t know that chromium can refer to a shade of green, will infer you mean the green block. Rico, a star from England, seems to have been the first dog tested to demonstrate the ability to infer which object to select. The researcher showed Rico – along with seven other toys he knew by name – an object he had never seen before. She asked Rico to fetch a toy, using a word new to him – “Siegfried.” Rico immediately inferred that Siegfried referred to the new toy.
On some tests – like navigational memory – finding food in a maze – rats beat dogs by a wide margin. (This is most likely because recent tests show that rats have a built-in GPS.) Even wolves beat dogs on finding food on the opposite side of a fence. However, in a follow-up, different experiment, dogs solved the problem immediately when they were first shown a human rounding the fence first (Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2013).
Studies of human-animal relationships (anthrozoology) and the domestic dog (cynology) are growing and evolving fields in academia. Beginning as a minor at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, anthrozoology was offered by Carroll as the nation’s first Bachelor of Arts in 2011. The degree “embedded the study [of the animal-human bond] in traditional fields”, says Anne Perkins of the psychology department.
Students at Bergin University of Canine Studies in Rohnert Park, California, apply their education in the associate’s degree program to puppies and service dogs. They begin training puppies as soon as their eyes open at about four weeks old. “The astonishing result is that most puppies respond eagerly and accurately to more than a dozen verbal cues by the time they are eight weeks old.”
Among other college curricula are an animal science department at SUNY; the psychology department at the University of Michigan offers “Dog Cognition, Behavior, and Welfare”; Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, the author of Inside of a Dog teaches a psychology course on canine cognition at Barnard College; Tufts University offers a master’s program on animals in public policy, which includes a study of companion animals, as does the master of anthrozoology at Canisius College in Buffalo.
Studies are concerned with getting the dog’s perspective, understanding the dog’s concept of fairness, whether dogs can count, how they form relationships with humans, how they interpret our gestures, and their changed behavior when they know we are distracted. All of these studies point to enhanced partnerships based on mutual respect, instead of compulsion.