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The Longest Now

Teaching a poodle to make certain requests of his human partner
Sunday November 01st 2020, 1:06 pm
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The following is a lovely essay by John Lubbock on learning to communicate better with dogs by teaching them language to express concepts. It was first published in Nature in 1885 and included in his delightful On the Senses, Instincts, and Intelligence of Animals (1888)

That the dog is a loyal, true, and affectionate friend must be gratefully admitted, but when we come to consider the psychical nature of the animal, the limits of our knowledge are almost immediately reached. I have elsewhere suggested that this arises from the fact that we have tried to teach animals, rather than to learn from them—to convey our ideas to them, rather than to devise any language or code of signals by means of which they might communicate theirs to us. The former may be more important from a utilitarian point of view, though even this is questionable, but psychologically it is far less interesting.

Under these circumstances it occurred to me whether some such system as that followed with deaf mutes, and especially by Dr. Howe with Laura Bridgman, might not prove very instructive if adapted to the case of dogs. I have tried this in a small way with a black poodle named Van.

I took two pieces of cardboard about 10 inches by 3, and on one of them printed in large letters the word [ F O O D ],  leaving the other blank. I then placed two cards over two saucers, and in the one under the “food” card put a little bread and milk, which Van, after having his attention called to the card, was allowed to eat.
This was repeated till he had had enough. In about ten days he began to distinguish between the two cards. I then put them on the floor and made him bring them to me, which he did readily enough. When he brought the plain card I simply threw it back, while when he brought the food card, I gave him a piece of bread. In about a month he had pretty well learned to realise the difference. I then had some other cards printed with the words “out,” “tea,” “bone,” “water,” and a certain number also with words to which I did not intend him to attach any significance, such as “nought,” “plain,” “ball,” &c.

Van soon learned that bringing a card was a request, and learned to distinguish between the plain and printed cards; it took him longer to realise the difference between words, but he gradually got to recognise several, such as “food,” “out,” “bone,” “tea,” &c. If he was asked whether he would like to go out for a walk, he would joyfully pick up the “out” card, choosing it from several others, and bring it to me, or run with it in evident triumph to the door. I need hardly say that the cards were not always put in the same places. They were varied quite indiscriminately and in a great variety of positions. Nor could the dog recognise them by scent. They were all alike, and all continually handled by us. Still I did not trust to that alone, but had a number printed for each word. When, for instance, he brought a card with “food” on it, we did not put down the same identical card, but another bearing the same word, when he had brought that a third, then a fourth, and so on. For a single meal, therefore, eighteen or twenty cards would be used, so that he evidently is not guided by scent. No one who has seen him look down a row of cards and pick up the one he wanted could, I think, doubt that in bringing a card he feels he is making a request, and that he can not only distinguish one card from another, but also associate the word and the object.

I used to leave a card marked “water” in my dressing-room, the door of which we used to apss in going to or from my sitting-room.  Van was my constant companion, and passed the door when I was at home several times in the day.  Generally he took no heed of the card.  Hundreds, or I may say thousands, of times he passed it unnoticed.  Sometimes, however, he would run in, pick it up, and bring it to me, when of course I gave him some water, and on such occasions I invariably found that he wanted to drink.


I might also mention, in corroboration, that one morning he seemed unwell.  A friend, being at breakfast with us, was anxious to see him bring his cards, and I therefore pressed him to do so.  To my surprise he brought three dummy cards successively, one marked “ham,”, one “bag,” and one “brush.”  I said reproachfully, “Oh Van! bring “food,” or “tea;” on whih he looked at me, went very slowly, and brought the “tea” card.  But when I put some tea down as usual, he would not touch it.  Generally he greatly enjoyed a cup of tea, and this was the only time I ever knew him refuse it.

A definite numerical statement always seems to me clearer and more satisfactory than a mere general assertion. I will therefore give the particulars of certain days.  Twelve cards were put on the floor, one marked “food” and one “tea.” The others had more or less similar words.  I may again add that every time a card was brought, another similarly marked was put in its place.  Van was not pressed to bring cards, but simply left to do as he pleased.

1: Van brought “food” 4 times.  “Tea” 2 times.
2:    ” ” 6 ”
3:    ” ” 8 ”      ” 2 ”
4:    ” ” 7 ”      ” 3 ”
5:    ” ” 6 ”      ” 4 ”
6:    ” ” 6 ”      ” 3 ”     “Nought” once.
7:    ” ” 8 ”      ” 2 ”
8:    ” ” 5 ”      ” 3 ”
9:    ” ” 4 ”      ” 2 ”
10:  ” ” 10 ”     ” 4 ”     “Door” once.
11:   ” ” 10 ”     ” 3 ”
12:   ” ” 6 ”      ” 3 ”

Thus out of 113 times he brought food 80 times, tea 31 times, and the other 10 cards only twice.  Moreover, the last time he was wrong he brought a card, “Door”, that shared two letters with “Food”.

This is, of course, only a beginning, but it is, I venture to think, suggestive, and might he carried further, though the limited wants and aspirations of the animal constitute a great difficulty. My wife has a very beautiful and charming collie, Patience, to which we are much attached. This dog was often in the room when Van brought the food card, and was rewarded with a piece of bread. She must have seen this thousands of times, and she begged in the usual manner, but never once did it occur to her to bring a card. She did not touch or indeed even take the slightest notice of them.

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