Dr. Emile van der Zee, University of Lincoln – How Dogs Think

Jan 25, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Emile van der Zee of the University of Lincoln reveals how dogs attach names to objects.

Emile van der Zee is Principal Lecturer and Director of Post-Graduate Studies in the School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln. His current line of research involves examining the nature of word comprehension in dogs. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands.

About Dr. van der Zee

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Dr. Emile van der Zee – How Dogs Think

Dogs understand that object names refer to objects. For example, in a study by Pilley and Reid a Border Collie called Chaser retrieved no less than 1,022 different objects upon hearing their name. But are names for objects associated with the same things for dogs and for humans?

Let us look first at what we associate with an object name. In several clever experiments Barbara Landau and colleagues showed that humans mainly associate names for objects with the shape of an object. For example, they showed young children and adults a U-shaped object, called it a dax, and then asked their participants to select a DAX from several size, texture and shape variations. Participants selected variations in texture or size, but not shape variations. This shows that people have a shape bias; they generalize the name of an object to other objects that have the same shape.

Gable and his objects

Do dogs also have a shape bias?

In our research we repeated the experiments carried out by Landau and colleagues with Gable, also a Border Collie. Having freshly learned the word dax Gable ignored the shape of a DAX and focused on its size instead. In order to make sure that this wasn’t a one-off occurrence, we carried out an experiment with a different set of objects and a different name, but again we found that for Gable an object name referred to a particular size. In addition, we discovered that when Gable knew a word for a longer period of time, he tended to associate an object name with an object’s texture.

Gable has shown us that object names are associated for him with bite size and feel of texture, whereas object names are associated with object shape for us. Although more research is necessary in this area, Gable has shown us that there’s something different in a name for him than for us.