Today's Science Daily features an interesting article about a border collie that was able to comprehend the names of more than 1000 objects. It describes a study in which Chaser, a border collie, was able to differentiate among objects by name, comprehend multiple names and categories for objects (e.g. toy and frisbee) and even correctly identify novel objects by process of elimination based on knowing the names of all of the other objects.
The border collie people must be all over this one...(I can't tell you how many bumper stickers I've seen around here that say "My border collie is smarter than your honor student"), but I think most people who share their lives with dogs know that this ability to identify objects by name applies to many, if not most, other breeds of dog as well. For example, I know that Baxter not only understands that "slipper" means my fleece slippers, he also understands the concept of an object that humans put on their feet, even though we've never taught it to him. So if I ask him to go get my slippers (which he usually does perfectly, as long as there is a treat waiting for him) and he can't find the slippers (which occasionally happens), he brings down an alternative -- usually a tennis shoe. He came up with that all on his own.
Both Baxter and Kirby seem to know the difference between their toy names. "Ball" is different from "tug" or "bear" or "bunny." And they definitely know that all of the above fall into the category of "toy," which means it's something they can play with and chew on, as opposed to our human objects, which they leave alone. (For anyone who has not visited our home, let me tell you this is quite a feat...as we have a lot of books, art objects, etc. within the dogs' reach and they've never disturbed any of them, not even as puppies.)
It's great to see research into animal intelligence. For a long time many researchers in the animal communication/animal intelligence realm, particularly those like Dr. Irene Pepperberg, who work with "pet" animals as opposed to more exotic ones like dolphins or chimpanzees, have had to go the extra mile to convince other scientists of the value of their work. To some it may seem a waste to study how smart dogs are when most of us who spend time with dogs already know it, but the value goes much broader. It is my hope that as we realize humans are not the only intelligent species on the planet, we will be more likely to show empathy toward non-human species. Perhaps it will help us consider our place in the world in a more humble way and to think about the consequences of our actions and their impact on species other than our own.