We often see the ability to build and learn a language as a set of skills so unique it sets us apart from all other creatures in the animal kingdom.
Dogs, in all their subconscious wisdom, spoil this theory. Research suggests that man’s best friend may possess the basic ability to learn words – the basic model of language – even if they lack the ability to learn more complex language skills.
In a study published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, researchers assessed the ability of some “great” dogs to remember words associated with particular objects. What they found could help us uncover the similarities between canine and human cognitive learning.
Shany Dror, principal investigator of the project and holder of a doctorate. student at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, tells Reverse it was “very surprising” that the dogs “not only were able to learn so many words in a short period of time, but also formed a long-term memory of the new toy names which lasted for at least two months” .
Since November 2020, Dror and his colleagues at Eötvös Loránd University have been running “Genius Dog” challenges. The goal is to better understand how gifted dogs learn to recognize words associated with certain objects.
“We defined dogs who are good at learning words as dogs able to learn the names of several objects – most often dog toys,” Dror explains. These genius dogs are quite rare in the canine world; the study team notes that while most dogs can learn to relate words to actions like “sitting,” it is much less likely to find a dog that can associate words with objects.
In this new study, researchers found that dogs’ ability to learn words quickly far exceeded what had been discovered before.
How the discovery was made – Dror and his colleagues tested six dogs. Because these dogs live all over the world, they have been reviewed by video.
All the dogs were border collies. This breed is considered to be particularly sensitive to the behavior of owners, which scientists believe could help them learn words. Researchers have also recently discovered genius dogs among Yorkshire Terriers, German Shepherds, and other breeds.
The researchers conducted a series of experiments, testing the ability of six dogs to learn words.
Experiment 1: Pet owners taught their dogs the names of six new toys in one week during playtime. The researchers then tested the dog’s ability to recognize the objects after a week by having the owners place the new toys on the floor along with older toys. All dogs have successfully learned the names of 5-6 new toys.
Experiment 2: The researchers repeated the experiment, but asked the dogs to learn the names of 12 toys in a week. All dogs have successfully learned the names of 11 to 12 new toys.
Experiment 3: The owners put the toys away and collected them after 30 days, repeating the experiment with six of the toys. Almost all the dogs remembered the names of the six toys.
Experiment 4: The researchers tested the ability to remember the names of the 6 remaining toys after two months. Most dogs could still remember the names of 5-6 toys even after 60 days.
What they found – The researchers left with two main takeaways:
- Genius dogs could quickly learn the names of 12 new toys in a week.
- Puppies also retained a long-term memory of these toy names, suggesting that dogs have successfully learned to associate objects with words.
“When we started this experiment, we expected our gifted dogs to learn quickly,” Dror explains. “However, we were surprised that they managed to learn the names of 12 new toys in just one week.”
Despite these results, we cannot generalize these skills and make broader assumptions about the ability of typical family dogs – like your own cute Fido – to learn object names.
“While most dogs can easily learn to associate words with actions such as ‘sit’ or ‘lie down’, very few dogs can learn to associate words with objects,” Dror explains.
Why is this important – The ability of non-human animals to learn words is a subject of ongoing scientific study.
We know that many animals, from cetaceans to birds, can imitate human speech. But it’s not the same as really learning how to understand unique human words.
Several studies have attempted to determine whether non-human animals have the ability to recognize words, although most of these experiments have focused on primates – our closest relative living in the animal kingdom.
For example, a 2012 study found that baboons can recognize the difference between true and absurd words – a necessary precursor to reading. Baboons identified words with a high degree of accuracy, although researchers suggested that the primate’s ability to learn words relied on basic object recognition skills rather than more complex language abilities.
A video summary of this study.
Likewise, the Genius Dog Project is trying to understand how dogs learn words through object recognition, which could help us better understand how dogs and humans process language.
“One of the things we want to understand is the differences and similarities between the way humans and dogs – both gifted and typical – process speech,” Dror explains.
According to project research, genius dogs appear to learn words quickly in a manner similar to 18-month-old infants. But there is more to understand before we can make accurate comparisons, especially since gifted dogs seem to be somewhat rare among canines.
“We don’t know how similar the cognitive processes involved are or if gifted dogs have a similar understanding of these words,” Dror explains. “At this point in our research, we would avoid drawing conclusions about direct comparisons” between dogs and humans, she explains.
And after – So … can you teach your own dog to recognize words and objects alike?
Unfortunately, you will probably have to wait for a definitive answer.
“We don’t yet understand how these gifted dogs are able to learn the names of objects,” Dror explains.
But she says this research suggests that many family dogs are adept at picking up their owners’ subconscious visual cues. If pet owners want to teach their dogs better, they need to be “very aware of how they communicate with their dogs and be aware of their whole body, not just the words they say,” Dror recommends.
If your dog can recognize the names of multiple toys, he could be a genius. You can contact the researchers at the Genius Dog Challenge to see if your puppy could qualify for one of their future challenges.
Abstract: Dogs with a vocabulary of object names are rare and are considered particularly gifted. In a few cases, these Gifted WordLearner (GWL) dogs exhibited cognitive skills functionally similar to those of human infants. However, the rate of acquisition of new object names and the ability of GWLdogs to form long-term memories of them is unknown. In this study, we examine the ability of six GWL dogs to acquire the names of new objects over a short period of time and retain them in their long-term memory without post-acquisition exposure. In Experiments 1 and 2, the dogs were tested on their ability to learn, through social interactions with their owners, the names of 6 and 12 new toys, respectively, in a week. In Experiments 3 and 4, the dogs’ memory of these objects was tested after 1 and 2 months. GWL dogs generally learned and remembered the names of new objects. We suggest that dogs knowing the names of objects could be a powerful model for studying mental mechanisms related to word acquisition in a non-human species.