Smart Pup

Can dogs actually learn words? What a new study on “gifted” canines reveals

Can man's best friend learn words? A Genius Dog experiment brings us one step closer to answering that question.

Nalani, a 'genius' dog
Sonja De Laat Spierings

We often view the ability to construct and learn a language as a skill set so unique it sets us apart from all other creatures in the animal kingdom.

Dogs, in all their unknowing wisdom, make a mess of this theory. Research suggests man’s best friend may possess the basic ability to learn words — the basic blueprint of language — even if they lack the ability for more complex linguistic skills.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, researchers evaluated the ability of certain “genius” dogs to remember words associated with particular objects. What they found could help us crack the similarities between canine and human cognitive learning.

Shany Dror, the project’s lead researcher and a Ph.D. student at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, tells Inverse it was “very surprising” that the dogs “not only were able to learn so many words in a short 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 her colleagues at Eötvös Loránd University have conducted “Genius Dog” challenges. The goal is to better understand the way gifted dogs learn to recognize words associated with certain objects.

“We defined Gifted Word Learner Dogs as dogs that are able to learn the names of multiple objects — most commonly dog toys,” Dror says. These genius dogs are fairly rare in the canine world; the study team notes that while most dogs can learn to link words to actions like “sit” it is much less likely to find a dog that can associate words with objects.

In this new study, the researchers found dogs’ capacity for rapid word learning far exceeded what was previously discovered.

One of the “genius” dogs, Nalani, with owner Sonja and researcher Shany Dror.

Sonja De Laat Spierings

How the discovery was made — Dror and colleagues tested six dogs. Because these dogs live around the world, they were evaluated via video.

All the dogs were border collies. This breed is considered especially sensitive to the behavior of owners, which the scientists theorized could help them learn words. The researchers also recently discovered genius dogs among Yorkshire Terriers, German Shepherds, and other breeds.

The researchers conducted a series of experiments, putting the ability of six dogs to learn words to the test.

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 one week by asking owners to place the new toys on the floor along with older toys. All dogs successfully learned the names of 5 to 6 new toys.

Experiment 2: The researchers repeated the experiment, but asked dogs to learn the names of 12 toys in one week. All dogs successfully learned the names of 11 to 12 new toys.

Experiment 3: The owners put the toys away in storage and retrieved them after 30 days, conducting the experiment once again with six of the toys. Nearly all the dogs remembered the name of all six of the toys.

Experiment 4: The researchers tested the ability to recall the names of the 6 remaining toys after two months. Most of the dogs could still recall the names of 5-6 toys even after 60 days.

One of the dogs in the challenge, Whiskey, is surrounded by toys. The dogs were taught to associate words with certain objects.

Helge O. Savela

What they found — The researchers came away with two major takeaways:

  1. The genius dogs could quickly learn the names of 12 new toys in one week.
  2. The pups also retained long-term memory of these toy names, suggesting that the dogs successfully learned to associate the objects with words.

“When we started this experiment we expected our gifted dogs to learn fast,” Dror says. “However, we were surprised that they managed to learn the names of 12 new toys in only one week.”

Despite these results, we can’t 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 link words to actions such as ‘sit’ or ‘down,’ very few dogs can learn to associate words with objects,” Dror says.

Why it matters — The capacity for non-human animals to learn words is a subject of ongoing scientific study.

We’ve known that many animals, ranging from cetaceans to birds, can imitate human speech. But that’s not the same thing as truly learning to understand unique human words.

Several studies have attempted to tackle whether non-human animals have the capacity to recognize words, though most of these experiments have focused on primates — our closest living relative in the animal kingdom.

For example, a 2012 study found baboons can recognize the difference between real and nonsense words — a necessary precursor to reading. The baboons identified words with a high degree of accuracy, though the researchers suggested the primate’s ability to learn words rested on basic object recognition skills rather than more complex linguistic abilities.

A video abstract of this study.

Similarly, the Genius Dog project attempts to understand how dogs learn words through object recognition, which could help us better understand how dogs and humans process language.

“One of the aspects that we are interested in understanding is the differences and similarities between the ways humans and dogs — both gifted and typical — process speech,” Dror says.

According to the project’s research, genius dogs appear to rapidly learn words in a way similar to 18-month-old infants. But there’s more to understand before we can make accurate comparisons, especially since gifted dogs appear to be somewhat rare among canines.

“We do not know to which extent the cognitive processes involved are similar or if gifted dogs possess a similar understanding of these words,” Dror says. “At this point of our research, we would avoid reaching conclusions regarding direct comparisons” between dogs and humans, she explains.

What’s next — So... can you teach your own dog to recognize words and objects in the same way?

Unfortunately, you’ll probably have to wait to get a definite answer.

“We do not yet understand how these gifted dogs are able to learn the names of objects,” Dror says.

But she does say this research suggests that many family dogs are skilled in picking up on their owner’s unconscious visual cues. If pet owners want to better at teaching their dogs, they should be “very conscious about the way they communicate with their dogs and be aware of their whole body, not only of the words they are saying,” Dror recommends.

If your dog can recognize the names of multiple toys, it might just be a genius. You can reach out to the researchers at the Genius Dog Challenge to see if your pup might qualify for one of their future challenges.

Abstract: Dogs with a vocabulary of object names are rare and are considered uniquely gifted. In a few cases, these Gifted WordLearner (GWL) dogs have presented cognitive skills that are functionally similar to those of human infants. However, the acquisition rate of new object names and the ability of GWLdogs to form long-term memories of those is unknown. In this study, we examine the ability of six GWL dogs to acquire the names of new objects in a short period and to retain those in their long-term memory without post-acquisition exposures. In Experiment 1, and 2, the dogs were tested on their ability to learn, during social interactions with their owners, the names of 6 and 12 new toys respectively, in one week. In Experiment 3 and 4, the dogs’ memory of these objects was tested after 1 and 2 months. GWL dogs typically learned the names of the new objects and remembered those. We suggest that dogs with knowledge of object names could be a powerful model for studying mental mechanisms related to word acquisition in a nonhuman species
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