PGS Exclusive: Louise Barrett responds to NY Times piece on dog cognition

Did you read this article in the NY Times, Science Times about Chaser, a collie who now recognizes 1,022 nouns? The article–which bears the wonderful title “Sit. Stay. Parse. Good Girl!”–argues that Chaser’s example might teach us about how humans acquire language, too. In the response below, Louise Barrett, author of the forthcoming book Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds, cautions us to take Chaser’s story with a grain of salt. She argues here (and in her book) that traditional ways of viewing intelligence should be re-evaluated and all may not be as it seems.

My dog, Cassie, is a border collie. Unlike Chaser, the collie who has learned the names of over 1000 toys, Cassie’s vocabulary is rather more limited: all her toys are called ‘scrunchies’—the name of the first toy she was ever given. She consistently fails to learn any other names, and her apparent lack of intellectual ability has led my husband to dub her a ‘borderline collie’. Perhaps Cassie is simply not inclined to learn more and wants to get on with the ‘real’ game of fetch or, more likely, we lack the dedication to teaching shown by John Pilley, Chaser’s owner. Reading about Chaser’s feats, one cannot help be impressed by the feat of teamwork displayed by man and dog, and Chaser’s ability to discriminate between over 1000 different items is truly remarkable. So, why bring human language into it? As one commentator on Nicholas Wade’s piece puts it: “It’s too bad we see in this article the old, reliable tendency to make this finding valuable if it tells us something about how human children learn. How narrow are humans!” Exactly so. Our anthropocentrism, our desire to see ourselves reflected in other animals, is indeed a narrow perspective, and one that, inevitably, results in the diminishing of Chaser’s natural intelligence.

Consider how one of the first questions asked is whether Chaser is showing ‘simply’ a Clever Hans effect, the mere cuing into human body language without true ‘understanding’. The interpretation of the Clever Hans effect as ‘simple’ has always struck me as rather odd. After all, there’s nothing ‘simple’ about it; I find it amazing that another creature—one so different from us in morphology and its manner of engaging with the world—can nevertheless cue into the subtlest aspects of human body tension and breathing patterns, and learn to read them so expertly. Indeed, I find it much more interesting than the idea that Hans could actually count.

Thanks to Pilley’s careful experimental approach, we know that Chaser’s abilities are not the result of such inadvertent cuing, but even if they were, they would still tell us something interesting about the perceptual learning abilities of border collies, abilities we have bred into them and which are clearly exceptional; watching a collie herding sheep, sensitive to the subtle shifts and change in the herd’s response and responding itself to the minimal cues provided by the shepherd, can seem almost magical to our untutored eyes. But, of course, it isn’t magic. It is a form of expert pattern-recognition, a kind of fluid anticipation, as the dog notices the right things and responds at the right moment. It seems a shame that we spend our time attempting to eliminate such effects, wary of the spectre of Clever Hans, and not investigating them in their own right. Living in our human language-heavy world, we often fail to recognize how common and important such body-based practical knowledge is to the successful negotiation of our physical and social environment. We too are expert pattern-recognizers, engaged in a process of moment-by-moment attunement and adjustment to the things and events we encounter as we go about our daily lives; we too are creatures that cue into subtle aspects of movement and mood; we too spend part of every day behaving just like Clever Hans.

Emphasizing the language-like nature of Chaser’s skills, and whether she understands ‘meaning’, therefore misses the point. We can instead choose to look at things less analytically, with more attention to pattern, much like the way that turning down the sound on a TV show makes us more aware of the gestures and facial expressions that accompany the speech on which our attention usually becomes fixed. We can, in other words, attempt to look at the tasks without labeling the sounds that Chaser hears as ‘nouns’ and ‘verbs’, or ‘proper nouns’ versus ‘common’ ones. And when we do this, we see how Chaser has learned to discriminate the patterning of sounds and objects, on an ever finer level, and how these finely drawn perceptual discriminations of objects have also been discriminated from the patterns of actions that can accompany them, all achieved within the social context of pleasing her owner, and receiving praise and treats. Lacking the fully linguistic scaffold that shapes our view of the world—the way in which, as Andy Clark, the philosopher puts it, language ‘freezes’ our thoughts into objects, creating islands (or icebergs?) of thoughts about thoughts—Chaser may not see the task as we do at all, even though she performs exceptionally well at it. For her it may be another form of pattern-recognition, and not the bizarre human practice of word-learning. Indeed, this is the real lesson of Clever Hans: we shouldn’t assume that Chaser, and other animals in other experiments, sees their tasks as we do, even when their performance is consistent with a human-like interpretation.

John Pilley says he wants to teach Chaser a ‘receptive, rudimentary language’ as a way to help develop communication between people and dogs. Clearly, Chaser will be an apt pupil. But if we want to increase communication between humans and dogs there is another way. Instead of imposing the weird world of human language on dogs by dint of ‘brute repetition’ and daily drills, we could instead learn to read more closely the body-based cues and signals our dogs produce, and exploit the pattern-recognizing skills that we already share. A little less conversation, a little more Clever Hans please.


  1. Hi,

    Interesting theory. Hand signals and body language are how our dogs take clues from us. I can get mine to sit with a signal.

    I know that my dog understands words. Mostly simple words like go, park. leash. When we are talking between us humans my dog will go for her leash if we say the word park. Cookie means dog treat to her.

    I find it so interesting that we are finally starting to study how to communicate with our dogs after all these years.

    Thanks for the lesson,


  2. Interesting. I have had a eye to eye communication with my dog. He is always looking at my eyes to see what signal I am going to give. I am not sure if this was taught unconsciously or if we just both picked up on this way of communication.

    It kind of freaks my wife out when we(our dog Kash and I)are in the visual communication mode and she sees how he responds. Sometimes we even mess with her. I give him the “eye” signal to ignore her and Kash won’t look at her no matter how many times she calls his name.

    Our previous dog, also a Border Collie mix had the same kind of eye to eye communication with me. I am not sure how it is taught, it just happens.