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Communication With Animals

[April 12, 1884.]

You did me the honour, some weeks ago, to insert a letter of mine,
containing suggestions as to a method of studying the psychology of
animals and a short account of a beginning I had myself made in that

This letter has elicited various replies and suggestions which you will
perhaps allow me to answer, and I may also take the opportunity of
stating the progress which my dog Van has made, although, owing greatly,
no doubt, to my frequent absences from home and the little time I can
devote to him, this has not been so rapid as I doubt not would otherwise
have been the case. Perhaps I may just repeat that the essence of my
idea was to have various words, such as "food," "bone," "water," "out,"
&c., printed on pieces of card-board, and, after some preliminary
training, to give the dog anything for which he asked by bringing a
card. I use pieces of cardboard about ten inches long and three inches
high, placing a number of them on the floor side by side, so that the
dog has several cards to select from, each bearing a different word.

One correspondent has suggested that it would be better to use variously
coloured cards. This might, no doubt, render the first steps rather
more easy, but, on the other hand, any temporary advantage gained would
be at the expense of subsequent difficulty, since the pupil would very
likely begin by associating the object with the colour, rather than with
the letters. He would, therefore, as is too often the case with our own
children, have the unnecessary labour of unlearning some of his first
lessons. At the same time, the experiment would have an interest as a
test of the colour-sense in dogs.

Another suggestion has been that, instead of words, pictorial
representations should be placed on the cards. This, however, could only
be done with material objects, such as "food," "bone," "water," &c., and
would not be applicable to such words as "out," "pet me," &c.; nor even
as regards the former class do I see that it would present any
substantial advantage.

Again, it has been suggested that Van is led by scent rather than by
sight. He has, no doubt, an excellent nose, but in this case he is
certainly guided by the eye. The cards are all handled by us, and must
emit very nearly the same odour. I do not, however, rely on this, but
have in use a number of cards bearing the same word. When, for instance,
he has brought a card with "food" on it, we do not put down the same
identical card, but another with the same word; when he has brought
that, a third is put down, and so on. For a single meal, therefore,
eight or ten cards will have been used, and it seems clear, therefore,
that in selecting them Van must be guided by the letters.

When I last wrote I had satisfied myself that he had learnt to regard
the bringing of a card as a request, and that he could distinguish a
card with the word "food" on it from a plain one, while I believed that
he could distinguish between a card with "food" on it and one with "out"
on it.

I have now no doubt that he can distinguish between different words. For
instance, when he is hungry he will bring a "food" card time after time,
until he has had enough, and then he lies down quietly for a nap. Again,
when I am going for a walk, and invite him to come, he gladly responds
by picking up the "out" card, and running triumphantly with it before me
to the front door. In the same way he knows the "bone" card quite well.
As regards water (which I spell phonetically, so as not to confuse him
unnecessarily), I keep a card always on the floor in my dressing-room,
and whenever he is thirsty he goes off there, without any suggestion
from me, and brings the card with perfect gravity. At the same time he
is fond of a game, and if he is playful or excited will occasionally run
about with any card. If through inadvertence he brings a card for
something he does not want, when the corresponding object is shown him,
he seizes the card, takes it back again, and fetches the right one. No
one who has seen him look along a row of cards, and select the right
one, can, I think, doubt that in bringing a card he feels that he is
making a request, and that he can not only perfectly distinguish between
one word and another, but also associates the word and the object.

I do not for a moment say that Van thus shows more intelligence than
has been recorded in the case of other dogs; that is not my point, but
it does seem to me that this method of instruction opens out a means by
which dogs and other animals may be enabled to communicate with us more
satisfactorily than hitherto. I am still continuing my observations, and
am now considering the best mode of testing him in very simple
arithmetic, but I wish I could induce others to co-operate, for I feel
satisfied that the system would well repay more time and attention than
I am myself able to give.


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