By Nancy Carlson • Columnist • 

Canine brainiacs

Some time ago, I mentioned to you that, in my retirement, I have resolved to go through the dust-covered pile of old Dog Fancy, BARK, Cooking Light and God-knows-what-other magazines I have accumulated over the years. I intend to see if there actually was something worth saving them for, and I thought I would report to you about the progress I’m making.

Well, not much. I’m still on the winter 2012 BARK, which was, of course, at the top of the pile. Two things impede my progress. First, there actually are a lot of articles worth reading. Second, even though I am now retired, I still find things to keep me occupied.

For example, I hope someone, someday, will research the correlation between the number of hours one stays at home and the number of times one’s dogs have to go out. When I was working, my pooches would stay inside for eight or nine hours straight until I got home to let them out, apparently without a problem. Now that I get to stay home all day, I feel like I spend most of my waking hours opening and closing the door.

But I digress. Back to BARK magazine. I was fascinated (and, I must admit, a little chagrined) by the article “Say What? What Our Words Mean to Dogs.” written by Julie Hecht, who has been researching just how capable dogs are at understanding human language.

It turns out, they’re pretty darn capable. But before I start to describe the Einsteins of dogdom, I think it’s important that both of us resolve not to compare these dogs with our own, because at least my guys come up woefully short. At the moment, for example, they have apparently forgotten the meaning of the word “quiet,” and I am writing this amid a cacophony of barking, whining and howling because the mail carrier just darkened our door. So, let’s just not compare, OK?

The article starts out with the Family Dog Project in Budapest, where 37 dog owners reported to the research team that their dogs knew 430 different utterances, with the average being about 37 per dog.

OK. That’s pretty good. The article doesn’t say whether the utterances were “Sit” or “Go do your homework.” But still, a dog that knows 37 different commands is pretty smart.

Well, yes, but not if you compare them to Rico, a border collie studied by Julia Fischer of the German Primate Center’s Cognitive Ethnology Lab. In 2004, she reported in Science Magazine that Rico knew the names of more than 200 different objects. I was pretty impressed.

Rico sounded like a canine genius until I heard about Chaser, a border collie in South Carolina, who might be the founding member of the MENSA society for pooches. Researchers from Wofford College reported that Chaser knew the distinct names of 1,022 different objects: 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and 100 plastic items.

Now, the first thing I asked myself (my mind apparently operates on a lower plane than Chaser’s) is what kind of a dog guardian (remember, this is BARK magazine, so dogs have “guardians,” not owners) goes out and buys his dog 800 cloth animals? But Chaser’s did, and then taught him names like Uncle Fuzz and Wise Owl so he would know which was which. I’m not sure if I could remember the names of 800 dog toys. I’m pretty sure I would have to write them down.

But here’s the scary part: Chaser not only knew the names of all those objects. He also could figure out which he didn’t know. So if Chaser’s guardian put down 11 toys he knew the names of, and one toy he didn’t, and then said ‘Go get (a new name Chaser doesn’t know)," Chaser will figure out that the new toy must be the one his guardian wants, because otherwise he would have said one of the 11 other names. In education, we call this deductive reasoning and, frankly, I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with my dog doing that.

The rest of the article goes on to talk about how scientists think most dogs use and understand human language, and it’s not quite as awe-inspiring but still an interesting read. I felt a bit better about my dogs by the time I finished. They know the words sit, stay, down and come, and, since the mail carrier has moved on down the street, they apparently have remembered what the word “quiet” means. They know treat, chewy and dog park — and stampede to the appropriate dispenser or door when I say them.

And they seem to exceed in their understanding of nonverbal cues. Snuffleupagus, the basset, for example, has an uncanny ability to discriminate between when I close the dog gate as I leave the kitchen unattended and when I absent-mindedly forget to do so. The latter, of course, means that, when I return to the kitchen, all the food left within a foot of the edge of the counter will have gone missing.

I often worry that they are smarter than I am, which is certainly smart enough.

Nancy Carlson can be reached at



What's up with border collies?! A dog-training friend of mine acquired a mostly-border collie from the Humane Society, and by the time the pup was five months old she would on command unerringly go sit in front of a stranger to whom she had been introduced by name 15 minutes earlier. She too knew all her toys by name or description.

On the other hand, I have decided through age and experience that if one treats a dog as if it had brains, it will exhibit them.

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