New Tricks?

Do dogs have a “this is my name” slot in their memory, or do they respond to a name in essentially the same way they respond to several hundred other sounds they encounter regularly?

I’m at my parents’ house, and the only sound right now is an old dog snoring. Mom and Dad took off for a ten-day cruise, leaving me to watch over the domicile. What I want to know is whether this is enough time to teach a 14-year old dog that I’m changing its name to Mr. Splashy Pants. Or PoincarĂ© (my dad hates speaking French). Or Shiteater. Or Quetzalcoatl.

I’m thinking this may not even involve teaching the dog anything new. No one uses her name (which is “Zypher”, and pronounced the same as “Zephyr”) anyway. In fact, when you call her name these days she runs away, because the only time anyone tries to call her name is when she’s gotten out and needs to be brought back in, or is going to the vet. If we’re doing something nice, like feeding her, she figures it out on her own. All I really have to do is change the tags. Of course, the defeats the point of the prank.

When Zypher was a puppy, I did experiments to figure out how well she knew her own name. She eventually learned to respond to “Zeph”, but would she respond to any two-syllable word I said as long as I directed it at her? Anything with a “z” sound? The result was that it was surprisingly difficult to trick her. “Heifer” (which rhymes) never got her attention. Neither did “Zealot”. At things like “Zephin” and “Slither” (if you said it right), she would look up and pay attention, but wouldn’t come directly.

I tried these again just now, years later. At “Zephin” and “Slither” she kept snoring, but when I said “Zypher” she woke up immediately, lifted her head, and looked straight at me. (She has arthritis in her hips and is much less likely to jump up and run over than she used to be.) So dogs apparently have the same sort of name-response conditioning that people do. She must subconsciously process everything I say to her while she sleeps, but consciously respond only to “Zypher”. This seems, to me, to be evidence for a “name slot”.

But since dogs don’t use speech, why would she have this ability? Why would they need to be able to have a name, since they don’t use one in the wild? I’d expect her to be able to respond to a specific sort of dog-sound, or the specific types of sounds dogs would encounter in the woods (which is always where I imagine wild dogs living, never on plains or steppe or marshes), but aren’t these sounds less complicated than a multisyllable name from a human language? Maybe not, and maybe paying attention when her name is called is not very different from paying attention at the sound of dog food being poured in her dish.

Can a dog have two names? If I teach her her new name is “Danita” (which is already my mom’s name, and I doubt she’d like sharing), will she (the dog) respond to that and her old one both? If dogs have a specific “this is my name” slot, maybe learning a new name will make her forget the old one. I hope so, but I don’t know about this, either, because although people definitely have a “this is my name” slot in their brains, many people learn to respond to several different names.

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2 Responses to “New Tricks?”

  1. Matt Springer Says:

    Odds are Zypher hasn’t had many wild dogs in her ancestry for a very, very, very long time in the past. Instead, she’s a descendant of animals whose reproductive success is enormously a function of both the ability to get humans to provide food/shelter, and deliberate selective breeding. The ability to understand the concept of “name” is probably a pretty strong advantage for a dog to have and so it has been bred in over the generations.

    Experimentally you could test this hypothesis by raising a wolf from puppyhood and seeing if it ever caught on to its name. But there may be some technical challenges to this approach…

  2. Mark Eichenlaub Says:

    Hey Matt,

    Yeah, evolution is funny. It seems to occur on different time scales, so that you can bring rare traits to the fore quickly, but it takes much longer to evolve totally new ones. Check out the E. coli Long Term Evolution Experiment. They evolved E. Coli for 40,000 generations, keeping samples every 500. From what the professor in the bioinformatics class I took told me, it was the first time a major new gene had been observed in the lab. But even more interesting, they found that the new trait (the ability to eat citrate) would re-evolve if they went back to some certain point, but not if they went too far back. So somewhere along there a quiet, unobserved mutation occurred that set up the second dramatic one. I’m not sure if they figured out just what the first mutation was, though. Not that any of this is relevant. I just thought it was cool.

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