Some Dogs Are Naturally Gifted At Understanding And Learning Words, Study Finds

Max was one of seven dogs found to have exceptional word learning skills. Image credit: Cooper Photo

Many of us talk to our pets, but how much of what we say do our pets actually recognize? Anecdotal videos appear to prove that some dogs are very good indeed at recognizing the W word, but is there a limit to their vocabulary skills?

A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports tried to find out by putting a group of dogs to the test in learning the names of toys. They wanted to see if extensive training at a young age influenced the dogs’ capacity to learn, or if, regardless of age, dogs could be taught to associate words with specific objects.

To do so, they took a group of puppies and a group of middle-aged dogs and enlisted them in the same vigorous training program which saw them being introduced to a toy while the owner repeated its name. Once the dog had learned its name, a second toy was introduced, and this continued for the three-month training period. Putting the pooches to the test at home, as well as at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, the Family Dog Project enlisted a total of 40 dogs.

"At first, we hypothesized that developmental factors, such as neuroplasticity during puppyhood, would have played a role in making puppies learn object names at a faster rate, compared to adult dogs. Thus, we recruited for this study puppies and adults", said Dr. Claudia Fugazza, leading researcher of this project, in a statement. "We were surprised to find that, despite the intensive training, most dogs, irrespective of their age, did not show any evidence of learning. Even more surprisingly, 7 adult dogs showed an exceptional learning capacity: they did not only learn the two toy names but, within the time of the study, they learned between 11 and 37 other novel toy names.”

dog learning words
While all the strong learners were Border collies, not all Border collies included in the study proved to be strong learners. Image credit: Helge O. Svela

Of the 40 dogs, there were just seven who showed a talent for understanding and learning words. One of those seven, a dog named Olivia, had never learnt object names before while the rest already had an established object vocabulary before the study began. Despite starting on the backfoot compared to her pupper peers, Olivia clocked 21 words in just two months meaning she comfortably caught up. That she was able to do so, the researchers say, indicates that dogs who are exceptionally talented at learning words don’t necessarily need to have previous experience. Furthermore, while all the exceptional learners were Border collies, there were 18 Border collies in the non-learners’ group, so simply being this breed is not enough to guarantee above average vocabulary skills.

"We are intrigued by this extreme inter-individual variation in a cognitive trait (the capacity to learn object labels) and we think that this is just the beginning of a journey that will lead us to better understand the roots of talent,” said co-author Dr. Adam Miklósi, head of the Department of Ethology in a statement. “i.e., why some individuals - humans or other species - are gifted in a given field.”

If you think your home may be harboring a vocabulary superstar, the researchers at Eötvös Loránd University continue to study dogs’ learning capacity via the Genius Dog Challenge.


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