June 28, 2004

More Dogs of Language

[Note: the author of this post is Arnold Zwicky. It appears over another name by accident]

Hot on the heels of the Jennee the Talking Dog story comes a Palo Alto Daily News opinion column -- 6/28/04, p. 12 -- by Rowland Nethaway (RNethaway@dailynewsgroup.com) summarizing the achievements of Rico and Jennee and putting forward a third contender for "absolute king of the smart dogs": Jim the Wonder Dog, of Marshall MO, who died in 1937 and is memorialized there by a bronze statue, park, and small museum.

To hear Nethaway tell it, when Jim, a black and white Llewellyn setter, was 3, he "amazed [owner Samuel] Van Arsdale [elsewhere: VanArsdale] during a hunting trip when Jim trotted to the shade of an [sic] hickory tree after his owner suggested they rest there. Van Arsdale... then asked Jim to show him an oak tree, which Jim did. Then Jim obliged Van Arsdale by showing him a walnut tree, a cedar tree, a stump, and a hazel bush."

The whiff of Clever Hans gets stronger and stronger as the story unfolds. "For the rest of his life, Jim displayed signs of great intelligence by obeying commands as though the dog could understand English, along with a number of foreign languages, assuming English was Jim's native tongue."

Not only was Jim multilingual, he "could go outside and find a cars [sic] by their colors, their owners, their make and even their license plate numbers. Jim could also pick out people by the color of their clothes or even their occupations. Dogs are supposed to be colorblind."

Even admitting that dogs are not in fact colorblind -- which, if it were true, would have made Jim not merely astonishingly smart, but also telepathic -- and admitting that some dogs distinguish people in uniforms from everybody else, which is at least a stab in the direction of picking out people by their occupations, this story is way too good to be true.

To appreciate just how extravagantly good the story is, compare Jim to Rico. Rico was taught to respond to one of some roughly 200 German expressions (uttered by his owner) by fetching the specific object the expression named. That is, Rico learned responses to what we would think of as proper names (though, as other critics have noted, it's not clear that the dog viewed the expressions as names), denoting individuals. Jim, however, is described as responding to category names.

Now, dogs are certainly capable of acquiring category knowledge (beyond the categories, like the dog category, that are good candidates for innate knowledge): uniformed vs. non-uniformed person, for example. Presumably, they are capable of associating names (pronounced by people) to these categories, although that wasn't actually demonstrated in the Rico study. Presumably, they are capable of picking up some of these associations spontaneously, without explicit training, although spontaneous category learning wasn't demonstrated in the Rico study, either, which used a standard behaviorist stimulus-reward design. Jim, in contrast, is supposed to have spontaneously acquired categories like hickory vs. oak vs. walnut vs. cedar (this is not entirely preposterous, though you could wonder why a dog might have an interest in these distinctions) and to have spontaneously learned associations between these categories and their English names (even supposing that his owner chattered on incessantly to Jim about vegetation, makes of cars, and the like, this really is preposterous).

Well, Jim the Wonder Dog died in 1937. But, like any world-class phenom, he has a website: http://www.jimthewonderdog.com/. His talents, as reported there, substantially exceed Nethaway's account, since he exhibited not only phenomenal abilities in comprehending English (and Italian, French, German, Spanish, and Greek), but also, like Jennee, communicated to human beings, though not vocally: "As Jim could not speak, a variety of answers were written on slips of paper even in different languages and Jim would always pick out the correct one."

As a sideline, Jim predicted the winners of elections, the World Series, and the Kentucky Derby. "And most amazingly, he could predict accurately the sex of an unborn infant." Rather less amazingly, he seemed to know "which fields contained birds and which ones didn't."

There's a tape of Jim performing. A book. And other merchandise. And you can contribute to the Jim, the Wonder Dog Memorial [sometimes printed with a comma, sometimes without]. Everything except links to Clever Hans sites.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 28, 2004 09:52 PM