Pet Projects

A lot of really interesting science has been undertaken using animals that either are naturally part of our home life or, in a few cases, have been specially adopted and adapted to the scientist’s home to study something requiring regular, often intense, personal contact with the animal.  

Perhaps the first example of the latter is the chimp Gua, who in the 1930s lived from the age of 7.5 months to 16.5 months (9 months in total) with two comparative psychologists, Winthrop N. and Luella A. Kellogg, and their son Donald, aged 10 months to 19 months. The Kelloggs’ son was in more or less continuous company of the chimp during this period: they bathed together, ate together, and, most importantly for the Kellogg’s scientific analysis, were given similar exposure to language. While this may sound strange, the Kelloggs had laudable goals: to compare the development of young chimps and humans (Gua developed faster on several nonverbal dimensions) and, especially to see whether if a chimp raised similarly to a human infant might develop language. Alas, the project did not yield the hoped for results. Although their son developed normal language, Gua achieved only a few human-like sounds, but certainly nothing resembling the human language development shown by Donald.  There are several videos available of films of Gua and the Kelloggs.

Others have followed similar interests in the linguistic and cognitive capabilities of animals. In the 1970s, Irene Pepperberg acquired an African Grey parrot named Alex. She said once that she originally bought him just as a pet, but then became intrigued by his vocalizations. She spent the next three decades exploring the development of simply remarkable concepts by Alex, such as the ability to distinguish number, color, and shape of an array of objects placed before him varying in number, color, and shape. Asked various questions about the objects (e.g., how many blue circles are there, Alex?), Alex responded with remarkable accuracy. There are several videos of Alex performing his conceptual magic, which have to be seen to be believed. After many years of training, which offered psychologists and animal behaviorists remarkable insights into animal concept learning, Alex sadly passed away in 2007.

Most recently, psychologist John Pilley began training his pet border collie, Chaser, to recognize different toys, each identified verbally with a unique name. Chaser was then taught to retrieve them from among several located at some distance from where he was given the command. What started as an exercise to satisfy Professor Pilley’s curiosity about whether different objects might be learned by Chaser became a major scientific project. Using trial and error training, Chaser eventually learned to retrieve, with very few errors, over 1000 different toys by name, from a number of toys he had learned to identify. The task involved not only learning the names of objects, but also remembering those names for the time it took to go to a different location and search among the choices for the correct toy.     

Many of us live with animals without doing anything quite as elaborate as the subjects of this commentary. (One of my graduate students, however, once usefully taught his golden retriever to fetch beers from the ice box for him [the graduate student, not the dog].)  Science fairs are a great way to teach children about how to study behavior. It is made all the easier if you have a dog or cat around the house, but even if you don’t, small critters may be had at pet stores that not only will give children hours of pleasure, but also can be taught simple tricks using positive reinforcement that in turn teach children about changing behavior. Interested in helping your children or others in doing this? Check out B. F. Skinner’s nice article from Scientific American about how such teaching might be done.

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.