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Lingustic Concepts & the Border Collie

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I remember the first time I became aware of the fact that I held a conversation with a dog.


I had thrown a ball for ex-foster, Rhys bach. He was obstructed by another dog and lost sight of the ball.

He swung his head to me and signalled "where'd it go?"

Without a moment's hesitation, I pointed to where the ball was.

Immediately, his focus swung to where I pointed; he started running in that direction and swung his head back to me to say "Got it! Thanks!"


None of that was rehearsed or trained. It just happened spontaneously. As he ran after the ball, I was left in wonder. I had a complete and meaningful conversation with a dog. We shared a common "language". This wasn't really new at all; what was new was I became aware of it. We shared a common language that crossed the 150 million years, or so, of evolution that separates our species. I felt both humbled and in awe.

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Very nice article.


As I mentioned in other topics, Bonnie has all but lost her hearing due to EAOD by the age of 4. When her hearing was still good and I had not the slightest inkling she'd lose it, from pup she was trained to work livestock, and by the age of 2 she was good enough to compete in class II trials (min 150yd outrun, drive, cross-drive, shed and pen). When I was training her I always tried to make her understand the task. She never carried out commands, she interpreted them, and this allowed her to save the day at trials. I have no idea when exactly she stopped hearing most of my commands, because by the time I noticed she couldn't hear me, her hearing was really, really bad. So at her last trial, things went south and we DQed (although the situation was such that many a dog would have failed there too, so it wasn't the DQ that was a problem, it was her unresponsiveness to my commands which noticed for the very first time.)


And what it means, is that before I realized she couldn't hear me most of the time, I had issued many commands she couldn't hear and she carried them out, and I was none the wiser. The last trial before I the one we DQed, she got a 3rd place among open dogs much older than her. To this day I can pen with her, and can get the sheep from the pasture; she can drive them out; she puts the baby duckies into their pen and tucks them in. Without a word, without a gesture from me.


All this should be thrown into to the knowledge basket, because we give a command with intention and an expected outcome, and we get the outcome we conclude the outcome was a response to the command we issued. But Bonnie says, no, it's not so simple at all . The article very nicely touched on this, but Bonnie's deafness made this fact as large to me as an elephant in a hobbit parlor - how clueless we really are as to what's going on in a dog's mind.


Being a linguist myself, I find it irksome that so much scholarly energy is wasted trying to show that human language is not unique to human beings. It is unique. Because what makes a species a species is its unique set of characteristics. Various subsets of various behaviors overlap with various subsets of other behaviors of other species. But the total configurations is unique for each. We can appreciate uniqueness of each, including that of others and our own. But I continually observe that if there is something nifty about a communication system, the first scholarly instinct is "it's like a human language"? Why should it be? Is there one scholar in this world, who having studied the communication system specific for sheep, would go on and try to show that their communication system is like that of dogs merely based on the fact that dogs interact with sheep? I don't think so, though there is a great field of study available between sheep and LGDs. In spite of this interaction (and behavior modification resulting from it) each remains unique in its own right.


Livestock work with border collies creates something very special, as the article states, something glorious. I think it would be a mistake to search for this glory among pedestrian, reductionist "similarities to human language". I think we bring into this relationship something the dogs don't have, and we let them develop something that originally is only a little bean-sprout in their minds. But to me, dogs too bring into this relationship something very important, and the glory of this something, is that we just don't have it. And that's why we stand in awe in the field: because we are touching something outside ourselves as a species, beyond our humanity.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Very interesting article. And great, GREAT commentary by Maja!


To me, the deepest magic in working dogs is when/if you reach the point where your dog intuits your ultimate goal from a pedestrian command that does not come close to embodying it. IMO, that goes beyond communication to communion.

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