Does this dog have language? Does it matter?

Here's a story from the New York Times about a dog named Chaser that knows the names for more than a thousand items and even, according to her trainer, can perform more sophisticated linguistic feats such as understanding verbs and knowing that words might name a type of thing rather than an individual object.

Now, a dog that really, truly understood what you said to it would be a lot of fun to have around. (Of course, I'd probably have to curb my tendency to give dogs affectionate nicknames like Meathead and Stinky.) But even if critters like Chaser are "simply reading cues unconsciously given" by their trainers, isn't that a pretty amazing feat by itself? It seems to me that the ability to read little signals from humans, even ones that the humans aren't aware they're giving, isn't "simple" at all.

I once read a book by an animal scientist How many words does your dog know?
How many words does your dog know?Courtesy ~~Yuna~~
that said that all animals are geniuses at the skills they use to survive. Maybe Chaser really is doing something similar to what human babies do as they learn to speak and understand language. But if she's not, I'd be willing to bet that whatever skill she's using is no less fascinating.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

mdr's picture
mdr says:

Thanks for posting this, Ellen. It reminds me of an event from years ago when I worked in television news. One day, I was sent down to a local department store to film a performance by a man named Charles Eisenmann and his amazing dogs. Eisenmann was a former professional baseball player wrote several books about his dog training methods that he said involved teaching them human languages. His claim to fame was that his dogs had starred in both the film and popular Canadian tv series called THE LITTLEST HOBO. When I arrived at the department store I found a crowd circled around Eisenmann and his dogs. Eisenmann claimed his dogs not only understood English but also French and German, and he spoke to them - not in one-word commands but in everyday language. The only example I remember from that performance is him asking one of his dogs to "go get the blue hat from the red-headed girl". The dog ran up to the little redhead in the crowd, gently grabbed the blue with his mouth, and returned with it. That was impressive and I imagine most of the show was like that, although my memory of it is pretty foggy.

What I do recall vividly happened later that same afternoon when Eisemann and his dogs showed up at our station. Several of us gathered around in the newsroom to talk with him and ask questions, and he was very happy to tell us all about his remarkable dogs. But of course we also wanted to see demonstration of the dogs' abilities. So he went through the usual things like having the dog count to certain numbers by barking or tapping its paw on the floor. Or picking out colored objects or opening a latched door by turning the handle with its mouth. I don't know if Eisenmann used special visual signals or other tricks that gave the impression that the dogs understood his questions or requests. If he did, I didn’t detect any. One skeptical reporter said to Eisenmann something like "That's cool, but what if I told the dog to open the door? Would he do it then?" Eisenmann answered the reporter's question by turning to the dog and simply saying, "You heard him." The dog immediately trotted over to the door and opened it again with its mouth.

In a small adjacent room the teletype machine was clattering away and - as it usually did - making a lot of noise in the process. At one point Eisenmann told one of his dogs - and I quote him here pretty much the way he said it - "The teletype machine is making too much noise. Do something to remedy that." Whereupon the dog walked over and shut the door to the teletype room.

The wife of one of the reporters was present for the demonstration, and was very pregnant, sitting in a chair. Eisenmann said to one of the dogs: "Somebody in this room is having a baby soon, can you go say hi to them?" Again the dog moved immediately to the expectant mother and acknowledged her by setting his paws up on her lap.

I don’t know about anyone else present that day, but I walked away convinced that Eisenmann’s methods and his dogs were truly something remarkable.

In my research for this comment, I learned that Eisenmann died just last month at the age of 91. I was sorry to hear that. I also learned that most of his dog training (he preferred: dog educating) books are out of print. With this new interest in Chaser, maybe some publisher will issue some new editions.

posted on Mon, 01/24/2011 - 2:48pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

ha ha that is awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

posted on Mon, 01/24/2011 - 1:08pm
Sherwin123's picture
Sherwin123 says:

It would be nice if dogs can understand our language, even if its just some basic words. It would make communicating with them that much easier, and we can show them how much we really love them. So far my dog can only recognise its name and a few trick words.

posted on Mon, 02/06/2012 - 8:40pm
cfogle's picture
cfogle says:

@ MDR. It is great to hear an actual eyewitness account of Eisemann's work. I am fortunate to have a copy of his book "Stop Sit and Think" . His ideas and methods are way ahead of most training methods in use today. I do not think he received proper credit for his work and it is my opinion that is because many considered him to be just a showman and therefore there had to be trickery involved in the dogs ability to understand requests and everyday language. I don't personally think that is completely the case. I do think he was a showman and took advantage of his ability to interact with dogs in order to generate income. However, it is my belief he developed techniques that warrants further study.

posted on Sun, 09/09/2012 - 5:53pm
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Thank you, cfogle. I'm glad you enjoyed the comment. Eisemann's demonstration at the newsroom 40 years ago was something I doubt I'll ever forget. I, too, think his techniques would be worth looking into today.

posted on Mon, 09/10/2012 - 1:20pm
Daphne's picture
Daphne says:

@cfogle - I have been on the hunt for any of Eisenmann's books for a very long time now. Is there any possibility at all that you would be willing to send me a copy? Of course, I can PayPal over the cash! :)

posted on Thu, 09/20/2012 - 8:33pm

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