About 62% of people claim that their pets understand what they say. Whether or not animals can hear, recognize, and possibly even understand what humans say has always been a profound mystery. Animals communicate with each other for different reasons. A lot of animals are very territorial. They have their own space or territory, and they communicate to defend that space.
Some animals are predators, and they bare their teeth when they want to scare other animals and sometimes roar. When other animals hear these predators, they warn each other. For example, monkeys communicate different alarm signals for different predators. If a monkey hears the alarm signal for a lion or a cheetah, they climb into the trees. But if they hear the signal for an eagle or human, they stay on the ground animals communicate differently. How do animals understand their community and human? Let’s discover it!
Can animals understand humans?
Dolphins are often said to be the smartest animals globally, and they certainly proved it in a 1984 study. Two bottlenose dolphins were taught human language. The first dolphin named Phoenix was taught how to comprehend human speech. The second dolphin, Akeakamai, was taught a form of sign language. Both dolphins were taught various words, such as object names, actions, and object modifiers.
All of which could be combined and rearranged into hundreds of unique sentences to form a command. For example, “swim to the blue ring” or “pick up the red ring.” The commands were given to the dolphins using computed generated voices and videos to prevent the Clever Hans effect. Both dolphins could comprehend and execute the given commands at a much higher success rate than what would be considered chance.
Understanding words and simple one-word commands are one thing. But for an animal to understand complex three-to-five word commands and accurately follow them is quite simply astonishing. Experiments such as these prove that many animals have an unprecedented understanding of human speech and communication.
Dogs may respond to these sentences but do dogs and other animals understand the meaning behind those sentences? Or are they just well-trained? You may be very surprised by what you’re about to discover about animal perception. In 1984, researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in California noticed something quite unusual. They claimed that they heard people talking around an enclosure where they kept a Beluga whale named NOC. They were fairly certain it wasn’t anything paranormal. After all, the voices sounded so real.
Eventually, a diver was in NOC’s tank, and he noticed the strangest thing. NOC, the Beluga whale, was talking to him in an eerily human-like voice. Incredibly, the whale reportedly told the diver to “get out.” That’s because, unlike humans who use their larynx, whales use their nasal tract to produce sounds, making everything sound all nasally. It’s believed that NOC lived most of his life close to humans and learned to mimic the human voice.
Asian elephants, seals, and parrots have also been known to imitate human speech. But do they understand what they are saying? In 1891 a German high school mathematics teacher named Wilhelm Von Osten convinced himself that animals could be taught basic mathematics. He tried to teach maths to a cat, a horse, and a bear. The cat couldn’t care less and was only interested in itself, the bear was just downright hostile towards him, but the horse showed great promise. After extensive teaching, the horse, named Hans, learned to tap his hoof in response to numbers Von Osten wrote on his blackboard.
If Von Osten wrote the number two, Hans would tap his hoof twice. If he wrote four, Hans would tap four times, and so on. Spurred on by this success, Von Osten proceeded to teach Hans to answer basic mathematical equations.
Von Osten would write on the blackboard “2 + 2 = ?” and Hans would tap his hoof four times. Von Osten was delighted and exhibited Hans to the public all over Germany. During these shows, which Von Osten never charged admission for, the crowd was awe-stricken as Hans correctly answered an array of basic maths equations by using his hoof to tap out the answers. Hans could add, subtract, multiply, divide and even work out the square root of a number. Hans would correctly answer around 89% of the questions. The news of “Hans the genius horse” rapidly spread across Germany.
A psychologist, Oskar Pfungst, asked to do some experiments with Hans, to which Von Osten agreed. Oskar Pfungst erected a large tent to perform the experiments to eradicate the possibility of Hans being influenced by outside stimuli. Pfungst asked Von Osten to step inside the tent and ask Hans mathematical questions like he usually does as a control test.
As expected, Hans got most of the questions correct. However, Pfungst then asked Von Osten to move a little farther away from Hans while he asked the questions, and subsequently, Hans got far fewer answers correct. Finally, Pfungst told Von Osten to ask Hans questions that he knew Von Osten did not know the answer to. When von Osten asked these questions, the accuracy of Hans’ answers fell to almost zero.
It appeared that for Hans to correct the answer, the person asking the question had to know the answer to the question. These results were extraordinary but exciting, so Pfungst investigated further. He observed Von Osten’s facial expressions and posture while he was asking the questions. Pfungst noticed Von Osten’s facial expression and posture change right after he asked a question. His face and posture would tense up in expectation of Hans’ answer. However, each time Hans tapped his hoof and got closer to the correct answer, Von Osten would relax slightly, and his posture, expressions, and mannerisms would change.
Hans tapped his hoof enough times so that he had reached the correct answer. Von Osten’s posture and expressions would relax and become happier because he was relieved that Hans had seemingly arrived at the correct answer, all by himself. It transpired that the horse was receiving small visual clues that acted as feedback. The horse would start tapping as soon as he observed Von Osten asking the question and then tensing up.
When the tension had alleviated from Von Osten’s face, Hans would stop tapping his hoof. Hans was never actually doing any mathematics. He was well attuned to his owner’s visual clues. Von Osten was shocked at this revelation because he was completely unaware that he provided Hans with these unconscious visual clues. He genuinely thought his horse was a genius. The results of Pfungst’s experiment had enormous effects on how all scientific experiments would be carried out in the future. This phenomenon came to be known as “The Clever Hans Effect.”
The Clever Hans Effect, as we know it today, is when an experimenter unwittingly alters the results of an experiment simply because they are expecting a certain result. The simple expectation for something to happen can have huge consequences on an experiment’s results without the experimenter even realizing it. These days, necessary measures are taken when working with both animals and humans to prevent the Clever Hans effect from altering the results of experiments.
A border collie named Rico came into the spotlight in 2004 after being intensively studied by animal psychologists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. The researchers showed a great interest in Rico because his owners reported that he could understand over 200 words. A feat previously unheard of in the canine kingdom. The researchers set up an experiment to test whether Rico’s skills were a bunch of fluff or a truly bone-a-fine talent.
The researchers arranged 200 toys on the floor in a room adjacent to where Rico was being held. They did this ten toys at a time. Each toy had a unique name, such as “fluffy” or “squeezy.” Rico’s owner had already trained him to remember the name of each toy. Each time the researchers let Rico into the room with the toys and asked Rico to fetch a toy, then another toy, and another until Rico had fetched all ten toys. While the researchers were issuing commands to Rico, they stayed on the other side of a dividing wall, where Rico could hear them but not see them, to eliminate the Clever Hans effect.
In total, Rico successfully remembered and retrieved 93% of the toys. Impressive, but this was only a test of Rico’s memory, not his cognitive function. His ability to use logic and inference, just like a human. So the researchers did a second experiment. They arranged seven items in the room with an eighth item which was brand new, to which they gave a unique name. Rico had never seen or heard the name of this new item before. Amazingly when Rico was let into the room and asked to fetch the new item. He was very quickly able to infer which was the new toy and fetched it straight away.
Rico seemingly used a process of deduction and elimination. This is called “fast mapping,” a process where one can quickly learn a new concept after a single exposure to brand new information. Human toddlers do this all the time. It’s how they know. Even more amazingly, Rico could fetch the new toys again, four weeks later, having seen them once. Out of the six new items that Rico was shown four weeks prior, he remembered three of the four weeks later. Interestingly, three out of six are the same rate at which adult humans can remember things they saw four weeks ago.
Chaser is another border collie who can reportedly remember the name of 1,000 toys and can retrieve each one of them, just like Rico. But Chaser has another unique talent. She can recognize verbs. Chaser’s owner, a retired psychologist, trained Chaser to understand and utilize three verbs: nose, paw, and fetch from a young age. When Chaser’s owner says “paw slinky,” Chaser will go over to the toy named slinky and put her paw on it. Similarly, if “nose slinky” is said, Chaser will put her nose on the slinky toy, and when “fetch slinky” is told, Chaser will fetch the toy.
Chaser’s owner can swap the verb and the toy’s name for any one of 1,000 different toys, and Chaser will go over to the correct toy and do the proper action almost one hundred percent of the time. That’s about the same cognitive ability as a three-year-old human child. This also demonstrates something astonishing. Chaser doesn’t simply remember every command. It’s not just a cheap memory trick.
Chaser’s brain is using the cognitive function to determine what to do in each given situation. This is no different from how a human brain works. However, this is rather basic stuff for an adult human. It’s an amazing display of cognitive ability and logical inference for an animal. It demonstrates that dogs understand what we say, provided they can learn these human-like concepts as a puppy. But that’s not different from a human.
Humans have to learn this stuff too. We aren’t born knowing what “go get daddy a beer” means. As a baby, we understand the individual words that construct that sentence and then as a toddler. We use our brain’s cognitive ability, especially our fast mapping ability, to know what we should do when those words are arranged into that sentence. Just like Chaser is doing.
Dog’s aren’t able to learn as fast or to the same extent as humans. So realistically, their ability is capped compared to a human. However, provided they are given the proper education and training from an early age. Dogs most definitely can understand at least a small percentage of what you say to them. So when you say “time for ‘walkies’” and your dog goes freaking mental. It may not just be because they have associated the word “walkies” with running about outside with their beloved owner. There’s some fundamental level of understanding there.
But don’t think you can go and have full-blown, esoteric conversations with your canine buddy. They may understand the odd word or two, but first and foremost, dogs use smell to communicate and differentiate between objects and people. They’re going to understand a lot more of what you’re trying to speak to them. If you roll around in the garden for ten minutes, then let them sniff you. Then if you try to explain to them why you had such a bad day at work. But so far, we’ve only talked about dogs, horses, and whales. What about other animals?
After all, the spectrum of animal cognition spans the entire animal kingdom. Take Koko the gorilla, for example. Koko is a female gorilla who has learned a modified version of American Sign Language. Koko was taught from an early age and now. She can reportedly understand and use 1,000 different signs of what her trainer calls “Gorilla Sign Language.” And she understands over 2,000 words of spoken English. Naturally, Koko has been the subject of numerous scientific studies, articles, and books. But whether or not Koko understands sign language in the same way a human does, is a topic of hot debate.
Some researchers argue that Koko hasn’t mastered sign language, and she doesn’t understand the words she is signing. They insist that Koko’s human-like sign language abilities are a result of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is when someone learns to do something because there’s a reward at the end of it. For example, if you showed a toddler three different colored boxes, blue, green, and red, and placed a sweet in the green box – the toddler would always learn to open the green box in the future to get the sweet.
Koko may have learned to make certain shapes and signs with her hands because she is rewarded. Video evidence showed that the Clever Hans effect was also influencing Koko. Her trainers were giving her unconscious facial clues to prompt her to make certain gestures with her hands. Despite all this, Koko’s trainers are adamant that there’s more going on in Koko’s head than researchers give her credit.
One evidence that suggests a greater level of cognition in Koko’s brain occurred when Koko’s baby was taken away from her. The day after her baby was removed, she reportedly signed the word “baby” to her keeper. This is known as displacement, the ability to talk about objects not currently present in the room. And it’s something that we thought was unique to humans and very rarely observed in the animal kingdom.
Also, Koko has been known to talk about new objects that she hasn’t even been taught how to sign. For example, Koko has never been taught the sign language for the word “ring.” But Koko combined the signs for “finger” and “bracelet” to refer to a ring. If you think about it, a ring is just a tiny bracelet for your finger. That’s pretty smart going, Koko. Events such as this suggest that Koko has a higher understanding of the words she is signing.