John Pilley and Alliston Reid of Wofford College have determined that their border collie Chaser can understand more than a thousand words. Not only that, but the dog can distinguish nouns from verbs, and even understand categorizing labels.
Chaser’s owners taught her the names of over a thousand different toys over a three-year period. In order to determine whether Chaser understood that the nouns were in fact the names of the objects and not simply orders to fetch that particular object, they combined the names with different kinds of verbs like ‘take’ or ‘paw’ (nudge with your foot). Chaser was able to match the correct action with the correct object.
Pilley and Reid found that Chaser could also group her toys into broader categories like ‘ball’ or ‘frisbee’. And even more amazing, she could infer the name of a new object by excluding previously used names.
Here’s an example of a testing/training session.
When I hear stories like this, I always wonder if these results are more or less representative of the whole species, or if the animal in question is some sort of super genius. There certainly is a wide range of cognitive ability in humans, why not in other species as well? If the animal is not representative, does that tell us more or less about the species?