Go Fetch

How does your dog learn? A new study has an answer that should sound familiar.

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Most pet owners are pleased if they manage to teach their dog to "Sit" or "Fetch" — or even "Roll Over" if they're feeling particularly ambitious.

But not Claudia Fugazza.

Fugazza, a researcher in the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University, has led a team of behavioral researchers in multiple studies of how dogs learn human language.

In Fugazza's latest study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, she and her team challenged the prevailing scientific assumption that dogs learn words through a process of elimination — also known as exclusion tasks. Instead, they asked whether dogs can rapidly learn words in more natural, social settings by playing with their owners.

Their findings suggest dogs may learn in far more similar ways to humans — specifically, small children — than previously thought.

How they did it — The researchers tested two dogs — a 4-year-old border collie named Whisky and a 9-year-old female Yorkshire terrier named Vicky Nina. While playing with their owners, the dogs naturally learned the names of different toys.

"We wanted to know under which conditions the gifted dogs may learn novel words. To test this, we exposed Whisky and Vicky Nina to the new words in two different conditions" said Fugazza in a statement.

Namely, these conditions were: "during an exclusion-based task and in a social playful context with their owners," she says.

The team first tested Vicky Nina and Whiskey's learning with a baseline experiment, in which owners asked the dogs to fetch familiar toys. Both dogs succeeded in this task, selecting the correct toy the majority of the time, though Whisky particularly excelled with a 91 percent success rate. Too good a boy.

Then, the researchers tested the dogs' ability to learn words by identifying two toys in an exclusion-based task. The test assumes rapid language learning — also known as "fast mapping" — occurs due to a process of elimination, such as placing an unfamiliar toy among a bunch of familiar toys.

Vicky Nina with her owner. Marco Ojeda

The dog can then learn to associate a word with the unfamiliar through process of elimination. Human children do this too, according to the paper.

The researchers placed two new toys in a separate room from the dogs' owners, who then asked each dog to fetch the correct toy based on its name alone. To eliminate the chance of bias, the researchers also had an experimenter unfamiliar to the dog — not the owner — ask the dog to fetch.

The researchers then repeated the same task, but during a social setting, in which owners taught the dogs words associated with the toys while playing.

Afterward, the researchers conducted a separate memory test to see how well the dogs retained their knowledge of these specific words.

Finally, the researchers conducted the same experiment, but on a control group of 20 dogs that did not have prior experience with learning the names of toys.

What's new — The researchers found "both dogs succeeded after exposure in the social context but not after exposure to the exclusion-based task."

In other words: Vicky Nina and Whisky were able to fetch the correct toy frequently enough in the social task, but not in the exclusionary task.

Why did this happen? In a nutshell, the researchers hypothesize exclusion tasks don't actually teach the dogs to learn the names of objects, including toys.

Instead, dogs happen to choose the right toy by process of elimination. It's a concept familiar to test takers around the world, who manage to ace their exams not through intense studying, but through a hardcore process of elimination.

Dog Whiskey with researcher Claudia.Claudia Fugazza

Whereas, in social settings, the dog naturally learns to associate a word with a toy, leading to successful language learning.

In both settings, the dogs only heard the names of the toys four times before being asked to fetch the objects. The researchers wanted to know if such rapid learning would lead to long-term memory gains. Could the dogs still remember the objects' names after an extended period?

The researchers tested the dogs' language recall at two intervals after learning the object's name:

  • 10 minutes after learning
  • 1 hour after learning

As it turns out: dogs, much like humans, are good at short-term cramming, but not so good at long-term retention. Both Vicky Nina and Whisky could remember the toys' names well immediately after first being taught them, but ten minutes later, their memories had already started to decline. After an hour, both dogs struggled to remember the toys' names.

The results suggest something pet owners likely already know from their own, anecdotal experiences: Word repetition may be necessary for long-term language learning in dogs.

Why it matters — The new research raises the potential for dogs to learn words more quickly and more efficiently through natural play with their owners.

Understanding these dynamics may help us better understand the evolution of language in humans, too. Domesticated dogs naturally learn through their prolonged cohabitation with humans. The study suggests dogs "may constitute an ideal model species...to study the evolution of the mechanisms underlying language learning."

In this study, for example, the researchers observed dogs rapidly learning words in a fashion not unlike young children.

"Such rapid learning seems to be similar to the way human children acquire their vocabulary around 2-3 years of age", Adam Miklósi, head of the Department of Ethology and co-author of the study, said in a statement.

If exclusion-based learning isn't effective in dogs, the researchers suggest it may not be an optimal way for human children to learn words, either.

A video explaining the study.

What's next — We've still got a ways to go before pet owners can teach their own dog new words this way, according to the researchers.

While Whisky and Vicky Nina excelled in the social learning setting, the control group of regular dogs did not. The researchers suggest the control group's lack of experience with learning object names — compared to Whisky and Vicky Nina — may have played a role, but they're not sure.

Language learning on the scale seen here may only be possible for "exceptional dogs" with unique "brain wiring" according to the study. Not all good boys may be as good when it comes to brain power, essentially.

As the researchers argue in the paper:
"Future studies should investigate whether this outstanding capacity stems from the exceptional talent of some individuals or whether it emerges from previous experience with object name learning."

In a video abstract, the researchers say "whether the mechanism is the same for human children and dogs remains to be discovered."

For now, it's exciting to consider the idea we're more similar to our pets than we might think.

Abstract: Learning object names after few exposures, is thought to be a typically human capacity. Previous accounts of similar skills in dogs did not include control testing procedures, leaving unanswered the question whether this ability is uniquely human. To investigate the presence of the capacity to rapidly learn words in dogs, we tested object-name learning after four exposures in two dogs with knowledge of multiple toy-names. The dogs were exposed to new object-names either while playing with the objects with the owner who named those in a social context or during an exclusion-based task similar to those used in previous studies. The dogs were then tested on the learning outcome of the new object-names. Both dogs succeeded after exposure in the social context but not after exposure to the exclusion-based task. Their memory of the object-names lasted for at least two minutes and tended to decay after retention intervals of 10 min and 1 h. This reveals that rapid object-name learning is possible for a non-human species (dogs), although memory consolidation may require more exposures. We suggest that rapid learning presupposes learning in a social context. To investigate whether rapid learning of object names in a social context is restricted to dogs that have already shown the ability to learn multiple object-names, we used the same procedure with 20 typical family dogs. These dogs did not demonstrate any evidence of learning the object names. This suggests that only a few subjects show this ability. Future studies should investigate whether this outstanding capacity stems from the exceptional talent of some individuals or whether it emerges from previous experience with object name learning.
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