Willow, a 12-year-old English terrier mix, cannot read this story about her. Not even the headline. You might be thinking, Of course not. Dogs can’t read.
You might be wrong. After just six weeks of practicing with her owner, Manhattan dog trainer Lyssa Howells, Willow can read—and follow—a few basic commands like “sit up” and “wave.” When Howells silently holds up a card with “bang” written on it, Willow plays dead.
“She’s the most intelligent creature I’ve known in my life,” says Howells, 28, who trains dogs both for pet owners and for TV appearances. She began teaching her own dog to read on a bet from a friend, who offered a trip to Mexico if she could do it. Howells was confident in Willow, who knows 250 tricks. “I can ask her, in full sentences, ‘Please go to the kitchen and grab a pen.’ She’s amazing.” When Willow proved she could act on written commands with no voice or hand signals, Howells won the bet. She took Willow to Baja to celebrate.
But isn’t this dog just recognizing cue cards? The fact that Willow “understands either handwritten signs or printed signs,” says Howells, argues for comprehension over simple memorization. Brooklyn animal behaviorist Peter Borchelt says, “This is not reading. The dog is discriminating between the shapes of the letters.” Still, some experts feel it is possible. “It’s not the same as human reading,” says Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. “Dogs are really perceptive, and I believe they can do more than we give them credit for.”
So what’s next? Writing? Not quite yet. Though Willow stood up at Howells’ City Hall wedding in March, she was unable to sign as a witness. But, Howells says proudly, “Her paw prints are stamped on the marriage license.”