Dogs are smart creatures. Some, like border collies and golden retrievers, are extremely intelligent. Being a dog lover and having a genius of a golden retriever, I was delighted to be assigned a specific project in my cognitive psychology class last semester having to do with dogs and learning. I thought it was fascinating, so I’d like to share.
I was assigned to give a presentation on a scholarly paper about an amazing border collie, Rico, who was able to recognize and pick out a couple hundred objects by their unique names (in fact, border collies are considered the smartest breed of dog by the American Kennel Club). Rico was part of an experiment where he was taught new objects because the researchers wanted to get an idea of how he learned.
More specifically, they wanted to see if he learned via the “fast-mapping” method.
What is “fast-mapping,” then? Well, to put it simply, fast mapping is when you form an interpretation about the meaning of a word quickly after the initial exposure. One way this happens is by something called exclusion learning.
Say you are presented with familiar objects and a new object you’ve never seen. Someone tells you to bring them the “blicket.” Well, you know some things here: One, you know what items are familiar. Two, you know familiar items already have names. So what do you do? You assume the new item is the “blicket,” and you bring it to the person. That’s exclusion learning.
To summarize the experiment results in a nutshell, Rico was presented with sets of items (each set had one new item and seven familiar) and asked to retrieve the new item. He correctly brought the new item back in 7/10 sessions. Four weeks later, he returned to the lab. He had no contact with the new items in between visits.
This time, in each set there were a few familiar items, the target item from before, and a couple completely new items. He correctly retrieved the target item 3/6 times. It should be noted that Rico never brought a familiar item back in these trials – his mistakes were always with new items.
Thus, there was evidence he fast-mapped. Children learn by fast-mapping, too, which is another aspect that makes this interesting – this language acquisition method is not unique to humans! Rico’s retrieval rate of 3/6 four weeks after learning the items is comparable to the performance of a 3-year-old child.
Some theorize that reinforcement can aid learning. Sure, reinforcement helps. Giving a dog a treat, praise, or whatever the chosen reward is for correctly identifying an object helps. There also can be some practice effects. Still, this experiment was proof that fast-mapping occurs nonetheless.
My dog Kiya knows probably 8-10 toys ranging from “Birdie” to “Bunny” and she was taught these items in a similar way to the experiment. The toy was brought home, referred to as a new word for her, and she picked up on it quickly. Now all I have to do is ask her “Where’s (toy)?” and she either combs the house or searches in her bucket to find the toy.
I can even ask her to retrieve toys directly from the bucket or put toys in the bucket and she knows what I am talking about. Her abilities always amaze me.
So, how do you teach your dog to retrieve new objects? Does any of this sound familiar?
P.S. If you’re interested in the paper, here is the info (it’s very short):
Kaminski, J., Call, J., & Fischer, J. (2004). Word learning in a domestic dog: Evidence for “fast mapping”. Science, 304(5677), 1682-3.
About the Author: Alyssa Zandi is an undergraduate psychology student, avid crafter, lifetime dog lover, and contributing blogger.