Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Training Tuesday: Yerkish

Yes, Yerkish is actually a word. I know, surprised the hell outta me to, but it's legit. This training segment will be a twist on what I usually cover as we are not talking about dogs today :). This weekend I had a chance to visit/tour the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary (IPLS) in Des Moines. It was very interesting but also sad to see such beautiful animals in captivity.

IPLS is a 'green', concrete building located on more than 200 acres.
Yerkish is the artificial language that employs a keyboard whose keys contain lexigrams (symbols) that correspond to objects or ideas. This language was developed for use by non-human primates and is used at IPLS. Lexigrams can be confusing for us (humans) as they represent words but are not necessarily indicative of the object referenced by the word. The IPLS has a great interactive webpage consisting of the lexigrams their primates know. Check it out HERE.

At IPLS they have six Bonobos (part of the Great Apes species, most closely related to Chimpanzees) that are housed in a state-of-the-art facility that has many indoor spaces and two outdoor spaces. Their most notable bonobo is Kanzi, who started learning the lexigrams by accompanying another bonobo, Matata, to her training sessions. Kanzi has far surpassed everyone's expectations though and knows more than 300 lexigrams. He is relatively famous, having appeared on Oprah and played piano with Paul McCartney :). Kanzi also knows some sign language and understands more than 3,000 spoken English words. Pretty freaking remarkable! I can't even imagine the process you would have to go through to set-up this training. During our tour, Kanzi demonstrated several words and showed us one of his favorite games. I would definitely recommend signing up for a tour at IPLS if you are in the area.

I don't think teaching lexigrams would work with the dogs since they are two-dimensional on a computer screen, but I would equate this same level of learning to teaching service dogs to pick up things by name or teaching your dog names for their toys. We all know they understand concept words as well - go outside, go for walk, car ride, go potty, etc. :) I think our dogs are ahead of the curve!

Do your dogs know objects or toys by name? 


  1. I had a chance to visit there years ago when the orangutans were still there. Amazing wonderful people, at least they seemed like people, studying us as much as we watched them. I hope they are doing well in their new place. My question (rhetorical, probably) is why do the scientists not learn bonobo, as much as teach them Yerkish?We spend so much time learning our dogs behavior/communication, but we don't spend a lot of time teaching them to run a computer to communicate with us. Maybe we should?

    1. With Kanzi, they did find that when he selected the correct lexigram for an object, he also made a vocalization that was unique to that object. So he was 'talking' per se, but I think the difficultly lies in the fact that we cannot even begin to try to duplicate that. I also think their body language is so much like ours that they don't need to spend as much time deciphering it, like we do with dogs. They do at least spend a lot of time studying the interactions between the different bonobos and how they communicate with each other. It would be interesting to see if someone could teach dogs to run a computer for communication purposes :). I'm sure there would be a lot of food, ball, walk pressed LOL.