Around the winter holiday season, the National Geographic Channel was showing this fantastic TV special called Dog Genius, and they've been reairing it recently. It's really wonderful, so if you love sciencey things, and you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend you TIVO it (it's playing again Saturday, August 17.) It talks specifically about how dog-human interaction has effected canine evolution, and it's fascinating. One of the things I found most interesting was the testing regarding canine comprehension of human gestures (especially the pointing experiments.)
For me, the most incredible and exciting study revolved around fast mapping. Rico (the handsome border collie in the photo) has demonstrated what appear to be fast mapping abilities, and these are highlighted on the show. This is a really big deal, because until recently, it was believed that only humans could use fast mapping to gain and retain new knowledge.
Those who work with young children are probably already familiar with that term, but, in a nutshell, "fast mapping" is basically... quickly learning through making assumptions. Fast mapping abilities allow children to form hypotheses about the meaning of a new word after a single exposure. Most children usually start fast mapping between the ages of 2-3, and use it to gather a large part of their vocabulary. During the TV program, they used a great, clear example: Say a child knows what a cow and pig is, and the child is presented with pictures of a cow, pig, and a cockatoo (a new, unfamiliar animal.) When asked to point to the cockatoo, the child can successfully infer that because she already knows what the cow and pig is... the unfamiliar image must be the cockatoo. The child has used fast mapping to learn what a cockatoo is. The belief that dogs may also use fast mapping is extraordinary!
It will be exciting to see what future cognitive studies reveal. The clarity of communication between human & canine is truly unlike any other interactive species dynamic... and it seems that there may even be similarities in the ways we learn, as well!