May 29, 2013

New threat to publishing jobs: the Grammar Hound


I thought we’d all be replaced by robots, but it seems the publishing industry is going to the dogs. This article from Science News reports that nine-year-old border collie Chaser is out for our jobs. She can understand the syntax and semantics of sentences that include a prepositional object, verb, and direct object. In other words, she’s a grammar hound.

Chaser can recognize and fetch over 1,000 stuffed animals in her “herd,” as you can see in the above video with astrophysicist and Star Talk host Neil Degrasse Tyson. She demonstrates “fast mapping,” acquiring new words through the process of elimination.

When a new toy is placed in her pile and Tyson asks her to find it, she deducts that the toy she does not know matches the unfamiliar name he uses for it. She successfully fetches that toy.

John W. Pilley, a psychologist at Wofford College, trained the dog to respond to commands such as “to ball take Frisbee” and its reverse, “to Frisbee take ball.” Pilley employed methods used with pygmy chimps and dolphins, including praise and play as reinforcements, to drive home the meaning of verbs and prepositions. He trained her for four to five hours a day for the first three years of her life.

Chaser learned to take one object in her herd to another, employing verbs and direct objects. She engaged in 830 different tests, scoring at least a 90 percent each time. You can watch demonstrations on Pilley’s YouTube channel.

“Chaser intuitively discovered how to comprehend sentences based on lots of background learning about different types of words,” Pilley said in an interview with Science News.

From the abstract Pilley’s study, published in the May Issue of Learning and Motivation:

Chaser’s understanding of the sentences was tested in three different scenarios: (a) when multiple and familiar objects were used in the syntax command sentence, (b) when novel objects were used in the syntax command sentence (novel in the sense that objects had not been used during training), and (c) when vision of objects was not possible at the time the syntax command was verbalized. Findings were statistically significant in all three scenarios.

Successful findings were attributed to Chaser’s intensive training in her first three years of life. Analysis of the data revealed that Chaser’s successful understanding of the syntax sentences required the processing and retention of two sound-object mappings (names-objects) into memory, along with simultaneous judgments concerning which object to take to the other – that is, working memory. These two types of cognitive abilities, memory storage and working memory, raise the bar in terms of our expectations of a dog’s potential ability to understand verbal communications. We propose that Chaser’s understanding of our three elements of grammar sentences represents a giant leap in her referential understanding of language.

Science News reports, “Exactly how the dog gained her command of grammar is unclear, however. Pilley suspects that Chaser first mentally linked each of two nouns she heard in a sentence to objects in her memory.”

Super dogs“—those among the smartest 20% in their breed—can understand as many as two hundred and fifty words. The previous record, for a border collie named Rico, was the vocabulary of a little over two hundred words.

There’s a market for books about dogs, but is there a market for books edited by dogs? While the competition would be adorable, let’s not introduce Chaser to a dog who can write or talk, OK?


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.