A smart German shepherd was brought to public attention in the
1920s, recognized for the almost unlimited number of commands he could understand. His owner, Jacob Herbert of Detroit, was a man with a mission to see how much a dog could learn.
Over the years, Herbert had observed circus animals that were trained to perform multiple tasks, and he was convinced that dogs could learn that many commands if properly brought up and trained.
Choosing the Right Puppy
Herbert researched dogs and set his mind to acquiring a puppy sired by a well-regarded police dog that was descended from a long line of prize-winning canines. The litter was born and Herbert went to select his puppy. Herbert described to a reporter from The New York Times (11-11-1928) how he chose Fellow; he described visiting the litter and reaching forward for one particular dog, only to hear the owner say, “I said you could have second choice.”
Herbert observed the litter for a bit longer. The other puppies were huddled together as a group, and no one dog stood out in any way. Then one puppy opened his eyes and looked directly at Herbert. Herbert responded with: “I’ll take that little fellow.”
And Fellow became the dog’s name.
A Smart German Shepherd Learns His Lessons
Jacob Herbert began working with Fellow right away. He felt strongly about two issues. He would not use physical commands, and his commands would be in a conversational tone that one would use if speaking normally to a person.
He began teaching Fellow objects one-by-one. Herbert always spoke clearly and never scolded. To teach Fellow a word, Herbert would say the name of the object—for example, a table–and then lead Fellow to the object and let him explore it. Fellow would sniff or walk around all objects; smaller ones he would pick up and turn over to fully see what it was. They worked on learning window, door, chair, and many other objects. As Fellow succeeded, Herbert would comment, “Fine, excellent job, Handsome.”
Soon Fellow could follow a wide variety of commands. If requested, Fellow knew to go to tables, chairs, windows and doors. He could pick up specific items and place them where directed. He could carry out commands that involved leaving the room and coming back. For example, if told “where is the cook?” Fellow went to the kitchen. If they were in an office building, Herbert might say, “find the elevator,” and Fellow would.
If told “never mind” when the dog was mid-task, Fellow knew to stop the activity.
Smart German Shepherd Meets the Scientists
Jacob Herbert was intent on proving that dogs were capable of much more than people assumed. He contacted several scientists at Columbia University in New York who agreed to meet with him, so he and Fellow traveled to New York where Professor C.J. Warden, who ran the animal laboratory at Columbia, and Dr. L.H. Warner came to Jacob Herbert’s hotel room to meet Fellow.
Herbert demonstrated some of the things that Fellow could do. Professor Warden must have been suitably impressed as he invited Fellow and Jacob Herbert to visit a psychology class he taught at Columbia to show the class what the dog could do.
Class Demonstration in 1927
In the classroom, Herbert made some basic requests of Fellow and then began issuing more complex ones. His tone and language was likely to take this sort of pattern: “Suppose you go to the lady on the right and lay your head in her lap.”
Other commands were things like “jump over the sofa,” “crawl under the table,” or “go into the back room.”
At Herbert’s specific command, Fellow picked up a silver dollar, placed it on a table, then retrieved it, and delivered to a young woman in the class. Then Fellow stood by her to protect her because she was holding money.
Fellow also proved adept at recognizing people by name. Fellow had previously met one of the people who visited the class that day; when Herbert told Fellow to go to the young man, he did so. Next Herbert introduced Fellow to several members of the class. Later when their names were called the dog walked without hesitation to each one and laid his head on their laps. Herbert also pointed out that the commands were given in no particular order, so Fellow’s ability was not one of rote learning.
Herbert also demonstrated that Fellow understood specifics by showing that the dog knew the difference between “collar” and “dollar.” Both objects were placed side by side, and Fellow rarely made a mistake on which one he was to fetch.
Next, Jacob Herbert stepped behind a screen to issue orders, demonstrating that Fellow received no clues from Herbert’s stance or body language. After that first visit to the class, Fellow and Herbert left in a limousine. Herbert explained that the dog disliked vibration, and therefore refused to ride in an inexpensive car. (New York Times, 10-11-1927)
Invited Back the Next Year
IN 1928 when Fellow returned, there were two particular points that stood out to Dr. Warden. The first was that Fellow would also take commands from Professor Warden, not just his owner. In addition, Fellow remembered things from the last visit. When Dr. Warden asked Fellow if he remembered the laboratory where the white rats were, Fellow stood up, walked out of the professor’s office, and waited to be admitted to the laboratory that did indeed house the rats. When let into the laboratory, Fellow went directly to the rat cage and nosed at it gently.
Dr. Warden came away from the experience with the intention of developing a larger study of how dogs learn, and to that end a fund called the Fellow Fund was established in Fellow’s honor.
The last newspaper mention of Fellow was in 1928. With the stock market crash in October of 1929, Jacob Herbert may have had a reversal of fortune, or perhaps with the country’s economy worsening, people just began to focus on other things.
Dog Days 2014 Concludes
My grandfather, William Kelly, was a rail yard supervisor at the Pueblo, Colorado train depot where the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway came through, carrying both freight and passengers. (He worked there in some capacity from about 1925-1965.)
My grandfather’s shift started at 6 a.m., and he and another worker customarily walked the yards as daylight broke to be sure that all was well. One day my grandfather noted that a dog had died in one of the box cars. Bill asked one of the laborers to take the dog and bury it.
Joe, the laborer, was gone much longer than seemed necessary, and soon my grandfather noticed that two other laborers were not around either. One named Dewey was known for being both pious and talkative; the other, Oscar, was also deeply religious. When Joe, Oscar, and Dewey all came back together, my grandfather wanted to know why they had all been away from work for so long.
Joe spoke up: “Oh, I took them with me…Dewey preached and Oscar cried.”
Those of us who love dogs can only hope that all dogs, when they meet the end, will have someone to preach and someone to cry.
See you in 2015!