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Our Language

Yes, you can be Doctor Dolittle. This chapter provides some ideas on how to talk to one of the animals — your horse — and how to both listen and understand what he is saying back to you.

Consider Alex:

Alex could identify 50 different objects and recognize quantities up to six; that he could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same”, and “different”… He had a vocabulary of over 100 words, but was exceptional in that he appeared to have understanding of what he said. For example, when Alex was shown an object and was asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. He could describe a key as a key no matter what its size or color, and could determine how the key was different from others.

Alex was an African Grey parrot.

Early Learning and Imprinting

Early research focused on the following reaction of precocial birds, something that is now called “filial imprinting”. Filial imprinting is useful in fostering a mother-offspring bond, and makes perfect sense. Even if a bird could learn to follow a man in boots or follow a toy train, in nearly every case the big moving thing nearby is mom, and learning to follow her is a key to survival. We can be comfortable believing that such a feat did not originate with birds, but that young dinosaurs of many species might have also followed their moms.

Filial imprinting seems to have been found in every species of bird that has been studied. We are all familiar with pictures of ducklings following a human or a dog that they have imprinted on. Whether filial imprinting occurs in other species is an open question. While there is a huge amount of early learning in mammals, it is not clear that any of this learning should be called “imprinting.” While the general public is comfortable with the word “imprinting” when talking about young mammals such as foals, scientists don’t use the term. Scientists don’t use the term “imprinting” when discussing mammals because mammals don’t imprint the way birds do. I don’t think it is appropriate to talk about imprinting in horses, but I’ll need to account for the positive effects of early exposure, so keep reading.

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