An old saw in the books about training dogs is that they can only understand about six hundred words. I used to point out what a rich vocabulary six hundred words might be, given reliable statistics which suggest that 90% of all English discourse involves a vocabulary of about one thousand words. I never considered, till now, the dubiousness of the "statistic" itself. How does one count a dog vocabulary? And what does "understanding a word" mean? Do dogs "understand" the words 'a', 'the', and 'an'? They usually understand 'get', which is defined by one of the longest entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. To illustrate my point about the meaning of meaning, consider an email that Crom recently sent to a woman we know. The circumstance was that she had sent her leftover beef scraps home for him from my birthday lunch. I've changed one detail, pretending that her name is Kathy:
Thin cue for the meet, and for hell ping my dead bee odor. Sorry for the words. I tired to say it write. Good thin guy have spill chicken.
There's a message of thirty-three words, sixteen of them spelled wrong (or are they?) If you fix the "spelling", what remains is five sentences (I'm counting the compound as two). Three are "human" sentences ("Thank you for the meat,"."I tried to say it right", and "Good thing I have spell checking") and two are "dog" sentences. That is to say, "Thank you for helping my dad be older" is not a construction any human would use, although an English speaker can figure out, with a little context, what it means. Likewise, "Sorry for the words" doesn't sound human either, and we aren't absolutely sure what it means: "Hope you understand?" "I'd rather wag my tail, but I can't do that on the computer." "I know I'm not saying this very well." "Please excuse the garbled vocabulary." That last may seem like the "best" paraphrase, but his confident remark about the spell checker actually suggests that he doesn't know about the garbling of the vocabulary.
If I were to say to you, "Have you garbled the twister?" I would be using five words you understand in a grammatical sentence. Do you understand what I am asking? "Understanding" is vastly extended beyond vocabulary. In fact, I would argue that linguistic "understanding" must include the ability to handle new linguistic events: unfamiliar vocabulary, garbled syntax, bad grammar, unfamiliar concepts. One day when Crom and I were walking along a lakeside, he veered toward the lake, obviously planning to take a quick dip, which is normally fine with me. As it happened, the lake was nearly drained and he would have had to traverse a ten-foot stretch of mud to get to the water. He was not on a leash, and I was not paying my usual close attention. I said casually, "We can't go in the water today." He turned immediately and came back.
No big deal until you try to figure out what, exactly, he understood. Normally, I would have said, "No water." That's clear, unambiguous, and couched in the lexicon every dog learns. It follows the principles of dog communication I'm about to describe. But I didn't say that; I spoke to him as if he were a human with a fully robust vocabulary and human creative language skills. The behavorists' last resort, that he changed his own mind coincidentally with my comment, may be the answer, but the shift was too immediate for that to sound convincing. And I didn't, contrary to what the nervous behaviorists like to think, give him a subliminal cue. No leash to imperceptibly tug, and he wasn't even looking at me to pick up the subtle body language with which dogs manage to comprehend the meaning of "Lassie, go to the shed and get the third wrench on the left from the lower tool rack, oil it and bring it to the guy under the sink." Maybe I smelled of disapproval. But if so, those odor molecules dispersed real fast....
Inflection? Give it a rest. I didn't inflect it as a command. It was an observation, no more imperative than a remark about the weather. If it were inflection, how would he figure out what was being forbidden? He didn't "know" I didn't want him going in the water, because normally it's ok. And if he "knew," by the way, it seems to me that believing a dog can process (little emotionless robots that they are) "I want to do this thing and he doesn't like for me to. He is disapproving so I'd better not do it" and then claiming that what the dog just did is not "thinking" is, well, not thinking. I don't buy the "He just understands inflection" argument anyway. Since when is 'inflection' not part of linguistic communication? "He wrecked the car?" does not mean the same thing as "He wrecked the car."
How did he understand and what did he understand? I don't have the answer, except to assert that the burden of proof is on the folks who say he didn't understand the words, not on me. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and likes to eat bugs, it might not be a cat.
But that's all introduction. What I want to write about is how to construct a English vocabulary for dogs. There are some governing principles I've never seen written down.
Crom does not "obey," he behaves. He understands what is wanted, and he chooses to do it. In the beginning of our relationship, I tried using the old training words to handle a broad range of occasions, and it didn't work. When I say "sit," he wants to know why. That isn't because he's willful or disobedient, it's because I often say "sit" frivolously, and he knows it, even if I haven't caught on to my own linguistic sloppiness. So I came up with some words for urgent "Sit." The idea originated with the wonderful trainer who helped Crom and I learn how to work together. We use the standard security-dog command "Out!" for "Stop everything!" especially if he is intent on doing something I don't want him to do. And for the more typical urgent stop, getting him to freeze so some clumsy bicyclist doesn't run over him, I use a three-note whistle, a backwards chickadee call that he can't possibly confuse with anything else (though it may confuse the attending chickadee). And both things are reserved. The whistle only gets used when he needs to freeze till I say "Ok." I never say "Out!" to him unless I mean it and only "it": "Emergency! Stop in your tracks and sit down!" So he knows that what I need is important, and he does it. That is behaving, not obedience. Crom is a good dog.