Dogs as intelligent as two-year-old children, says a headline in the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that is marketed to people of a conservative disposition and their dogs. And in case you did not quite understand the headline, they say it again in the subhead: "Dogs are as intelligent as the average two-year-old child, according to research by animal psychologists." It is bylined "By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent". (Science Correspondent! He almost certainly has a Master's degree, possibly in Science!)
Research conducted at Language Log Plaza has shown a somewhat different result. Dogs are not as bright linguistically as a human two-year-old. But what is true is that dogs have the same general intelligence and ability to detect bullshit as the average Science Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph or BBC News.
The details Mr. Gray reports are that "Researchers have found that dogs are capable of understanding up to 250 words and gestures, can count up to five and can perform simple mathematical calculations." And in case you (or your dog) did not quite understand that, it is repeated in more detail for you:
"The average dog is about as bright linguistically as a human two-year-old," said Professor Stanley Coren, a leading expert on canine intelligence at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who has carried out the work.
"This means they can understand about 165 words, signs and signals. Those in the top 20 per cent were able to understand as many as 250 words and signals, which is about the same as a two and a half year old.
"Obviously we are not going to be able to sit down and have a conversation with a dog, but like a two-year-old, they show that they can understand words and gestures."
The evidence of understanding words comes from experiments in which a border collie was trained to go and fetch a ball when "Ball!" was shouted at it, and so on for other medium-sized fetchables. (Ah, border collies. Long-time Language Log readers will recall that we have been here before.)
And the evidence of mathematical calculations was that a trained border collie can work out the square root of an arbitrary integer written on a chalkboard, to an accuracy of at least three decimal places.
No it wasn't. I said that just to see if you were paying attention. If you're a Daily Telegraph reader you probably believed me. The evidence was from differential gaze experiments: if you drop three doggie treats behind a screen and then surreptitiously remove one or two before shifting the screen, a dog looks a little bit longer at the remaining treat or treats than it does when all three are still there like they should have been. They are capable of noticing, in other words, when slightly weird shit is going down.
If this all satisfies you — if you now think border collies can understand the meaning of lexical items and do mental arithmetic — then Professor Coren has won his game of spoof the public. But it has left me wondering whether I will be reading stories about lexical item acquisition in dogs and other stupid fake pet communication tricks until my dying day, or whether one day we will wake up on a bright new morning and Science Correspondents will have realized that they don't have to just paraphrase the press release put out at the APA convention, they can ask a few penetrating questions about what it means to understand the meaning of a word. (Like, could a dog understand an adverb, such as "surreptitiously"? Why is it always nouns and verbs triggering trained physical actions like fetching? I understand the noun "turd", but if you say it to me I don't run to try and find one.)
[Hat tip: Brian Davies.]
(I have left comments open below, but if you are a dog, please say so. On the Internet, nobody knows these things.)