Ichi…ni…san…shi…go. That’s how you count to five in Japanese. But around our little home you are likely to hear me saying “ichi-ni, ichi-ni, ichi-ni” from time to time and it has nothing to do with counting.
That is because Max was taught that the phrase “ichi-ni” means that my wife or I, or both, are leaving the house and the Malt is not invited to tag along. It’s a phrase that is guaranteed to extract the world’s saddest look.
(By the way, the derivation of that phrase comes from my daily trips to the local health club. It started when my wife performed a charade of me lifting a barbell up and down above my head, chanting “ichi” on the upstroke and “ni” on the way down. She did this to inform Max that I was leaving alone. It was essentially her version of cadence: one-two, one-two. But I digress.)
Anyway, ichi-ni is one of a handful of phrases that are significant to the pup but which have no real meaning in either English or Japanese. Basically, Max is not only bilingual; he also understands gibberish.
That got me to wondering how many words a dog can recognize. Of course it depends on the dog and if we’re talking Border Collie the response is how many words are in the Merriam-Webster dictionary including the latest update which is “selfie”.
According to Dr. Stanley Coren, an expert in canine intelligence, the average dog can understand about 165 words, possibly more with training. There was a big story about doggie language comprehension in 2001, when Rico, a border collie (natch), appeared on a German TV game show and showed he could recognize 200 different words.
Rico became a big hit at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology when he proved he could use process of elimination to figure out unfamiliar words, and he could remember new words even after a month of not hearing them.
Rico held the vocabulary medal until Chaser, another border collie (natch again), displayed knowledge of a whopping 1,022 words. Chaser’s feats were published in a study in the Behavioural Processes Journal in 2011.
Of course you may be one of those folks eternally nattering on about the finer points of zoosemiotics and debating instinctive animal communication versus learned cognition. Maybe not.
I think Max can readily recognize about 50 words. That number is a far cry from Rico or Chaser but covers most of his needs and I can assure you that he is keenly aware of every nuance of meaning associated with the word “cookie”.