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 t
e 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.