back to article Dogs would say: size is important, shape - not so much

We here on the canine desk at Vulture Central have often pondered the mystery of how it is that dogs - with their own mental lexicon - understand words that relate to fetching specific objects such as "ball" or "bone". Now animal behaviour academics at the University of Lincoln have collected empirical evidence that apparently …


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  1. John H Woods Silver badge

    Explains why ...

    ... of about 100 words my dog understands, about 90 are foodstuffs. Although she's probably using scent as well as texture.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      But but...

      Doesn't the entire house smell of "dog", and hence, the same?

  2. dogged

    I always wondered...

    if you train a police dog to bring down a running target, what happens if by coincidence there is also a jogger nearby?

    Police dogs have been trained to do this since before anyone ran except criminals and people who were late for a bus. Seriously question. There are a lot more running people these days, often sweaty and smelling of nasty lycra. Doesn't that mess with the dogs?

    1. jai

      Re: I always wondered...

      from what i've seen by watching lots of shows on Alibi, lycra is very much NOT the preferred clothing material of the criminal classes.

      possibly, that explains why joggers wear it. the only reason i'd ever wear the stuff was out of fear of being mauled by a police alsatian if i wore normal clothes.

    2. Remy Redert

      Re: I always wondered...

      The trick here is the criminal's response vs the jogger's response. The jogger seeing the cops and the dog will stop, the criminal will run faster. The dog now has an easy way to pick out his targets that is convenient for the cops as well.

      And what if the criminal stops as well? Well, then the dog did its job of stopping the criminal without even having to bite anyone.

      1. Roby

        Re: I always wondered...

        I'm pretty sure if a dog was chasing me while I was jogging then my reaction would be to run faster. Why would I stop and get mauled?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: I always wondered...

          my reaction to a dog chasing me while jogging would be to either

          a) climb up the nearest tree or similar area inaccessible to the dog


          b) find a way to disable the dog.. what I'd use depends on the situation, while jogging is one the few times I won't be carrying a multi-tool so I'd be very vulnerable....

        2. Kubla Cant

          Re: I always wondered...

          @Roby: Why would you expect to be able to run faster than a dog?

          1. A J Stiles

            Re: I always wondered...

            You don't have to run faster than the dog. Just faster than your travelling companion.

      2. Marvin the Martian

        "The trick here is the criminal's response vs the jogger's response."

        Is that your opinion on the conundrum posed, or is there any argument/facts/whatever to back this up.

        If you take an average dog and put a cat in front of it, the outcome mostly depends on the cat: if it stands its ground and threatens, the dog retreats; if it turns tail the dog chases it (and it depends on the individual/training whether it play-chases or grabs to kill). [See similar video of cats chasing bears up trees etc.]

        So that's in line with the idea that police dogs go by the runner's reaction; but it applies to untrained dogs. [Trained dogs differ: My neighbour's hunting dog, a lurcher, almost killed my not-running-away cat; in four seconds he put him into intensive care for three days after he brazenly jumped into the dog's garden to eat from the its tray.]

        AFAIK police dogs are never trained with unprotected people (say lycra-wearing joggers), I guess Health&Sanity laws wouldn't allow it, so that's not it. [Come to think of it, police dogs are trained with the 'criminal' dressed in gigantic, furry, anti-bite suits. So if they were strictly trained by similarity, they'd be lethal to those annoying "mascots".]

        I have seen police dogs bring down running as well as standing people, and people making eye contact or looking away. That doesn't mesh with the dog chosing his target based on running style. I think target indication is very much up to the handler; it's not that they suddenly shout "CAtch!" with their arms on their back and looking at the clouds. I actually wonder what the dog would do if there's possible confusion (signal? stop?); it can certainly be instantly called off if chasing the wrong target.

        [Wolves very much hunt in packs with a leader somehow indicating which one from a herd of buffalo to bring down, while there's a mass of similar-sized, similar looking beasts stampede in identical fashion. So dog training must use this signalling/listening system.]

      3. Mr Common Sense

        Re: I always wondered...

        It would still bite them anyway shown by numerous videos on the internets which is why you want something pointy if you're a protester or jogger.

        If people don't like the idea of said dog being perforated then they should complain about police misusing dogs as weapons.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I always wondered...

      'Police dogs have been trained to do this since before anyone ran except criminals and people who were late for a bus. Seriously question. There are a lot more running people these days, often sweaty and smelling of nasty lycra. Doesn't that mess with the dogs?'

      That sounds like an EPSRC grant application well worth pursuing. Your deliverables should be a paper, conference presentation, a lawsuit and YourTube video with laugh track.

    4. Maria Helm

      Re: I always wondered...

      Having been around a lot of dog training, I can answer this one. They are given additional cues. Dogs trained for police work, search and rescue, etc. don't just work off "he is running, so get him". They also work off a scent cue picked up early in the chase, and are also trained to take directional orders from their handler. So, the dog can be halfway across the parking lot and the handler can yell a command and make the dog turn right, or left, or even stop completely. The training must override the instinct, or they won't make a good service dog. Being extremely well trained is life saving TO THE DOG.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I always wondered...

        As Maria says, you can train a dog to change direction on command, sheep dogs being the obvious example if you're not familiar with police dogs.

        A few words of advice;

        - Never attempt to stroke a police dog when it's on duty. The dog will probably won't lash out but its handler isn't going to take the risk just so some drunk can pet it. Especially since it'll mean the dog will be sanctioned. You're likely at minimum to get an earful from the handler but it's more likely you'll be forcefully pushed out of the way and you won't have any recourse for any injuries you sustain.

        - If you're being chased by a police dog do not attempt to run, it'll always outpace you. Don't attempt to climb a tree either, the dog will have your ankle before you're even on the first branch.

        - Under no circumstances attempt to attack the police dog with your 'multi-tool'. First, you'll get in serious trouble for attacking a police dog. Second, these dogs will continue to do their duty even with injuries. Third, you'll have a set of dog jaws clamped round your arm as soon as you reach into your pocket.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          "never stroke a police dog on duty"

          Of course not. Would you pet a constable on duty? Better not.

          So the "no petting" rule applies to any police officer; the dog is just one of the better looking ones to which it applies.

  3. Chris Miller

    My dog's very clever

    She understands every word I say to her. She doesn't take a blind bit of notice, but she understands every word.

    1. a cynic writes...

      Re: My dog's very clever

      We've got one like that.

      Actually the article would explain why our one sees any small animal as a puppy to be played with, held down and washed. So far she's made that same mistake with a cat, two chickens and a rabbit. All of them were unhurt but unimpressed.

      1. Tom 260

        Re: My dog's very clever

        Also explains why one of mine has a funny reaction to a Staffie that lives nearby - because of it's widely spaced shoulders/hips, it's quite a different shape to most dogs where the legs go down from the joint, not outwards and down.

        1. Dave 126 Silver badge

          Re: My dog's very clever

          Your canine might be picking cues from the Staffie... they tend to be keener on humans than they are other dogs.


          I was impressed when my nine-month old cocker spaniel took his lead from my mate... his chickens had got loose, so he ran towards them, arms flapping. My spaniel immediately picked up on this, and joined in the game. Fearing he would he would hurt a chicken, I called him back and returned to me - surprising, because usually he is 'selectively deaf'. He's got within a jaw-length of an ascending pheasant's tail, and made an ambitious attempt to catch a buzzard, but so has yet to dispatch anything avian.

          1. Eddy Ito

            Re: My dog's very clever

            "... has yet to dispatch anything avian."

            We had a pair of siberian husky 'twins', the only obvious difference being their eye color. They were pros at catching birds and fiendishly clever. Their best trick was to carry the food dish a bit inside the doghouse entrance and "sleep" outside while waiting for a hapless bird to make a go for the dog food. Once the bird was far enough inside the pair would rush the entry with one going in after the bird and the other blocking its escape. After seeing them do this successfully several times in one weekend I stopped wondering where all the starling and grackle feathers were coming from.

            1. Yet Another Commentard

              Re: My dog's very clever

              "... has yet to dispatch anything avian."

              I thought you may have heard that "bird" is the word.

    2. Ian Michael Gumby

      Meh its telepathy... Re: My dog's very clever

      With my dog, I can use multiple words, or adjectives and he always seems to know what I mean when I say them.

      He's smart that way.

      Its why some dogs tend to bond with certain people and only those people.

  4. Refugee from Windows

    Canine vocabulary

    Definitely object based, words for various toys are understood well by my hound (a collie) but "rabbit" seems to be understood not as an object but as a command to chase small furry animals. Mind you, a few years ago when the outlaws were about, my previous one picked up commands in Chinese, even when the command "sit"* had different meanings depending on who gave them.

    *As in place posterior on ground or eat.

  5. jungle_jim

    My border collie

    Likes his squeaky banana and has his own facebook page.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: My border collie

      My housemates collie loved her squeaky toy far too much, I don't think it lasted much more than a day before a screwdriver was put through the squeaker.

      I think she knows more than she lets on though.

  6. peyton?

    Fundamentally distinct?

    "sound-to-meaning mappings... was fundamentally distinct in mutts and humans"

    Just because texture is noticed over shape?? I have a suspicion that if humans picked up most objects with their mouth, we'd suddenly start paying more attention to texture as well.

    Also makes me wonder, how did they measure (and control for) the distinction between each object's taste ;)

    1. frank ly

      Re: Fundamentally distinct?

      "... if humans picked up most objects with their mouth, ..."

      Yes, puppies especially seem to explore the world by grabbing things with their mouths and licking them until them get bored. I've never tried it myself but I'm sure it would give me a different perspective on things.

      1. Kar98

        Re: Fundamentally distinct?

        > I've never tried it myself

        You quite sure about that, guv?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Fundamentally distinct?

        "I've never tried it myself but I'm sure it would give me a different perspective on things."

        Watch any young child exploring new things - look, grab, stuff in mouth. We all did it until socialised out of the habit.

  7. BCS

    Perhaps not that surprising

    Anyone who has trained a gundog will know about the whole size/texture thing. You train using a simple cylindrical dummy which doesn't look anyhting like a bird or rabbit. You then strap some feathers / fur to it as the training develops. At no point does it look like the intended quarry.

    You can buy bird shaped training dummies - I did so - but I'm not at all sure that the dog cares which one he is fetching etc.

    1. Ejit

      Re: Perhaps not that surprising

      Aye, and Labradors are born half trained while Spaniels on the other hand, die half trained.

  8. Mr Young


    I can still smell you stinky humans and why are you pissing about with funny shaped stuff? Got any shit I can roll around in? Sent from my sleepy basket...

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Training who is questionable.

    There is a difference in training a creature and working within it's own instincts. I think training can lead to higher level intelligence in any creature generation after generation, so it has a lot of value. The raw instinct before training is what humans consider intelligence, or to someone who thinks this is an accurate way to measure intelligence, the method of sorting the trainable with the lesser. Notice how quickly the measure of intelligence spins out of control?

    However, I think if you have a animal of any kind that will actually fetch something, you have a animal who's instincts are not sharp enough to recognize enslavement. Thus, the intelligence of the trainable animal might be compromised. There are exceptions to the rule, and I'm not implying this doesn't make them cute, loyal, and very loving creatures.

    At some point, I have to question my instincts to enslavement to that of different species. Sadly, I have found myself to be very well trained, and I have seen dogs and cats you can't train at all. So,where do I rest?

  10. Dave Bell

    There's a lot in how the human behaves. There are ways a human can act which a dog will react to, and even Police Dogs are trained in ways which don't push too hard against is. It isn't a Crocodile Dundee stunt, but not acting scared will affect how the dog acts. As far as the Police are concerned, you have stopped, and that's fine.

    A lot of dog training was based on misleading ideas that came from the study of wolves in zoos, a very artificial situation. Looking back over the dogs and cats in my life, we used to surprise some people, but we never went the Barbara Woodhouse way. As for the one-eyed ginger tom from across the road, who had a reputation as a Right Bastard, I think he ended up trusting us.

    My uncle's piece of skirt was one of the "Ooh, baby" school of pet handling. Our cat would hide for the rest of the day.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    " I have a suspicion that if humans picked up most objects with their mouth, we'd suddenly start paying more attention to texture as well."

    Young children always explore new things with their mouth - as the final test after eyes and hands. Don't think it is necessarily because they are hungry. Mapping of the nerve density of various parts of the human body shows that the lips are a major sensory area.

  12. RonWheeler

    One dog study?

    Interesting study but drawing a conclusion of - this one dog is different from most humans - would be hasty.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Could this study be applied to BT call centre workers?

    Similar behavioural traits. Probably similar IQ. Definitely less loveable.

  14. Dropper


    "This sleepy mutt, following a three-year-long empirical study by your correspondent, is NEVER EVER gonna fetch a silly ball".

    Plus don't feed it after midnight and never allow it to touch water...

  15. Gordo Rex

    Of course it ignores shapes

    The test was done with a border collie. All sheep have the same shape.

  16. Dr Insanity

    Not a ubiquotous XKCD, but I think this time it makes a better reference

  17. ArekZ

    My border collie + Mandarin

    I also have a well trained Border Collie (called Linux; working as a rescue dog) and recently I noticed something funny about languages. When he sleeps I can talk in Polish, English, German, etc. and he just continue sleeping ignoring all the sounds.

    However, recently I started learning Chinese and he is crazy about it! Even when I say 我 (meaning 'I') he runs to me and expects more commands ("What should I do?!"). 8)

    The difference is in the tones and tone 3 "activates" him the most.

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