20040610

Newsflash, dogs can understand people

Study: dogs understand spoken human words. Let's inspect the article using complete sentences, because we can.

At the beginning of the article:
Now, for the doubters, there is scientific proof [dogs] understand much of what they hear. [emph. mine]
At the end of the article:
[Doubter] calls for further experiments to answer several questions: Can Rico learn a word for something other than a small object to be fetched? Can he display knowledge of a word in some way other than fetching? Can he follow an instruction not to fetch something?

What are we to make of yet another annoying Times science piece that both overstates the obvious and underexplores the questions it brings up? (Corollary: why is it that when you read an article on astrophysics in the NYT, they take up column inches backgrounding you on theory you've read before, but when they cover social phenoms, they fill it with fucking opinions? See money quote.) A quick recap of the evolution and linguistics you all know will help us:

OBVIOUS
Dogs evolved in packs where social status defined survival opportunities (as did we), so clearly the stage would be set for them to understand statements with a social dimension (emotive or pragmatic), elements of tone notwithstanding. You could growl and a dog would understand the meaning.

QUESTIONS
Dogs would not understand what you meant if you said "and then he was all growling and shit at me!" Neither would your grandparents, but they would grok that you were talking about some noun all verbing up on some other-noun. Dogs can't take the Lego brick of one word, plug it in somewhere else, and change a sentence's meaning; they can't substitute one growl to mean something else. They only understand whole meanings, not the grammar chunks that make them up.

QUESTIONS AMENDED
Can Rico learn a word for something other than a small object to be fetched? Ten to one he knows "vet." Can he display knowledge of a word in some way other than [its pragmatic intent]? "Could you at least wait until I'm awake to have to go?" will likely pass over his head. Can he follow an instruction not to fetch something? (Ooh! a negative. watch out, curveball.) Nice try but a loud "NO" will usually stop Butch in his tracks.

Fucking fluffpieces. Where's the remote?

MONEY QUOTE
"People who talk to their dogs are cutting-edge communicators, not just a bunch of eccentrics," says American Kennel Club board member and owner of Poopsie, Floopsie and Mr. Piddles-on-expensive-shoes. What's that quote about great minds talking about ideas, medium (tall? venti?) minds talking about things, and small minds talking to their dogs about other people?... I wouldn't call them eccentric and I wouldn't call them stupid. I'd just call them people with nothing better to do.

OK, OK I take it back: DOGS ARE CUTE. I HEART DOGS.

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