Thursday, June 10, 2004

Words our dogs understand

OK, you've probably seen this story about how researchers have learned that dogs can comprehend words.

If you're a dog owner, this is probably not surprising. But it's interesting to see some scientific research backing it up.

All of this led me to think about our dogs (Big Brown and Little Black), what words they know, and what words I wish they knew.

What They Know

Big Brown Dog:

• "walk" - The most obvious thing a dog would learn, I guess. Saying the word - especially while wearing shorts and sneakers - means you're taking him out. Even if "walk" was in the context of a baseball game.

• "out front" - A few months ago, I figured out that the easiest way to get the BBD to take a piss before bedtime was to let him wander unleashed in the front yard. With so many dogs passing our house each day, he'll instantly drain his bladder to re-mark our trees out there. The problem is, now he absolutely refuses to go to bed unless he's been out front. So around 11 each night, I say "out front" and he leaps up out of his slumber on the sofa and dashes to the front door. Once finished outside, he heads straight to his room, awaits his bedtime treat and retires for the evening.

• "drop" - The BBD recognizes this word when we're playing fetch, but it has a different meaning for him than it has for me. When I say "drop", I mean "drop the ball so I can throw it". When he hears "drop", he turns away, runs behind the grill or otherwise prepares to fight me for control of the ball. To him, "drop" means "go time!"

Little Black Dog:

• "breakfast" and "dinner" - Here's the life of the LBD in a nutshell - He wakes up about 6:30 a.m. and demands breakfast. From 6:32 a.m. until we get home, he's thinking about dinner. He eats dinner within 3 minutes of us getting home, and then he thinks about breakfast until he goes to bed. We don't dare say "breakfast" or "dinner" if we're not intending to put food in front of him.

• "treat" - Because food is the focus of the LBD's life, and because he's such a bastard, every positive action he takes throughout the day is rewarded with a Snausage or other fine dog treat. He begs to go to bed at night so he can get one. Starting about 8:30 every night, he asks to go outside every 5 minutes or so, because he gets a treat after he takes a crap, and he figures he can fool us into thinking he craps 10 times between 8:30 and 10. "Treat" is a word we also don't dare use in the house, because the LBD is already rewarded at every turn.

• "potty" - As in "did you go potty?". The LBD understands that if you say the word "potty" in a sentence, you are expecting an excited reaction, and that excited reaction gets him a treat. There's an important distinction here. It's not that he associates actually going potty as the trigger for getting a treat; in his mind it's barking excitedly when the word "potty" is spoken that is rewarded.

• "[doorbell sound]" - To the LBD, a doorbell sound means "someone is here, and I must kill them." This was really amusing when we lived in the old house, which did not have a working doorbell. But TV doorbells draw the same reaction. He's especially set off by the doorbells on South Park, Frasier and Domino's commercials. When we're feeling especially mean, we'll hit the back button on the TiFaux and play the doorbell sounds over and over.

What I Wish They Knew

• "no"
• "shut up" (LBD)
• "come here"
• "go away"
• "chill out"


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