Dogs seem to understand human requests
German researchers worked with border collies that seemed to understand commands to retrieve a certain toy when shown a full-size or miniature replica of the toy. Even a photograph of the toy worked with some dogs.
The researchers studied five border collies: three trained to fetch objects and two untrained dogs. To test the dogs, a researcher put eight dog toys on the floor of a room in the owner’s home, then joined the owner and the dog in an adjacent room. The owner then requested a particular toy by showing the dog a replica, saying “bring it here.”
The trained dogs nearly always fetched toys that corresponded to full-size and miniature replicas. The untrained dogs initially struggled with the task, but improved in subsequent rounds of testing. In a separate experiment, two of the three trained dogs successfully retrieved a particular toy after viewing a photograph of the toy.
And these dogs seem to be unique in their ability to fetch so specifically. Chimps, dolphins, and other animals have had difficulty retrieving objects after being shown replicas of those objects, even after many trials.
According to researcher Juliane Kaminski, the results show that dogs may understand people more than was previously thought. “The most reasonable interpretation of dogs’ success in the replica tasks is that they understood that by showing a replica, a human was trying to communicate something to them,” she says.