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Teaching Dogs A Method Of Communication

[Dec. 29, 1883.]

Mr. Darwin's "Notes on Instinct," recently published by my friend, Mr.
Romanes, have again called attention to the interesting subject of
instinct in animals.

Miss Martineau once remarked that, considering how long we have lived in
close association with animals, it is astonishing how little we know
about them, and especially about their mental condition. This applies
with especial force to our domestic animals, and, above all, of course,
to dogs. I believe that it arises very much from the fact that hitherto
we have tried to teach animals, rather than to learn from them--to
convey our ideas to them, rather than to devise any language, or code of
signals, by means of which they might communicate theirs to us. No doubt
the former process is interesting and instructive, but it does not carry
us very far.

Under these circumstances it has occurred to me whether some such system
as that followed with deaf mutes, and especially by Dr. Howe with Laura
Bridgman, might not prove very instructive if adapted to the case of
dogs. Accordingly I prepared some pieces of stout cardboard, and printed
on each in legible letters a word, such as "food," "bone," "out," &c. I
then began training a black poodle, Van by name, kindly given me by my
friend, Mr. Nickalls.

I commenced by giving the dog food in a saucer, over which I laid the
card on which was the word "food," placing also by the side an empty
saucer, covered by a plain card. Van soon learnt to distinguish between
the two, and the next stage was to teach him to bring me the card; this
he now does, and hands it to me quite prettily, and I then give him a
bone, or a little food, or take him out, according to the card brought.
He still brings sometimes a plain card, in which case I point out his
error, and he then takes it back and changes it. This, however, does not
often happen. Yesterday morning, for instance, he brought me the card
with "food" on it nine times in succession, selecting it from among
other plain cards, though I changed the relative position every time. No
one who sees him can doubt that he understands the act of bringing the
card with the word "food" on it, as a request for something to eat, and
that he distinguishes between it and a plain card. I also believe that
he distinguishes, for instance, between the card with the word "food" on
it and the card with "out" on it.

This, then, seems to open up a method which may be carried much further,
for it is obvious that the cards may be multiplied, and the dog thus
enabled to communicate freely with us. I have as yet, I know, made only
a very small beginning, and hope to carry the experiment much further,
but my object in troubling you with this letter is twofold. In the first
place, I trust that some of your readers may be able and willing to
suggest extensions or improvements of the idea. Secondly, my spare time
is small, and liable to many interruptions; and animals also, we know,
differ greatly from one another. Now, many of your readers have
favourite dogs, and I would express a hope that some of them may be
disposed to study them in the manner indicated. The observations, even
though negative, would be interesting; but I confess I hope that some
positive results might follow, which would enable us to obtain a more
correct insight into the minds of animals than we have yet acquired.


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