Anyone who has lived with a dog knows their ability to learn the meanings of words, even those you wouldn’t want them to know. How many times did you have to spell the words “going” or “dinner” to avoid an explosion of excitement?
Previous studies have looked at how non-human animals, including chimpanzees, sea lions, and rhesus monkeys, learn words. But now, a paper published in Nature shows that some dogs learn the name of a new object after hearing it just four times, a skill previously believed to be limited to humans.
The researchers found that this skill was not common in all dogs studied, but may be limited to a few “talented” or well-trained individuals. So how do you know if your own dog is a genius or not?
The study was simple and easy to repeat at home. Just follow the researchers’ steps to see if your dog can learn the names of objects that quickly. But don’t worry if your dog doesn’t have this ability. This can only be due to his race or previous experience.
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Whiskey and Vicky Nina
The new study included a collie named Whiskey who knew 59 objects by name and a Yorkshire terrier named Vicky Nina who knew 42 toys.
The researchers tested each dog’s knowledge of their toy by asking them to bring each toy in turn. Neither the owners nor the experimenters could see the toys so as not to influence the choice of dogs.
Once it was determined that the dogs knew the names of all of their toys, the researchers introduced two new objects, each placed one at a time in a group of familiar toys. In this test, Whiskey chose the new toy every time. Vicky Nina got the right one in 52.5% of the attempts, which is a bit more than chance.
Learn new names
For the next part of the study, the dog was shown a toy, given its name, and then allowed to play with it. After repeating the name of two different new toys four times, the dog was asked to choose one of the two new toys.
No known toys were included in this part of the experiment in order to prevent the dog from choosing the right toy by exclusion. Knowing the name of all the other toys, the dog may choose the right toy, guessing that the unfamiliar word must indicate the unfamiliar toy.
Both dogs opted for the new toy more often than chance would predict, suggesting that they actually learned the name of a new object very quickly. However, her memory deteriorated significantly after 10 minutes and almost completely after an hour. This shows that the new learning needs more reinforcement if it is to be maintained.
Read More: Six Tips For Grooming Your New Puppy According To Science
The test with the new toy was also done by 20 volunteers with their own dogs, but these dogs did not show the ability to learn new names after a few hearings.
The authors suggested that the difference between the performance of the two dogs in their test and the volunteer dogs means that the dog may need to be unusually intelligent or have a lot of name learning experience in order to learn new names quickly.
It is likely that a combination of factors are at work in these experiments. It is significant that the most common breed used in studies of this species is a border collie, bred purposefully to perform audible commands and very highly motivated to perform tasks and please the handler. Yorkshire terriers also enjoy mental and physical stimulation.
Similar tests have been carried out by other research groups, usually using border collies. In 2004, a dog named Rico was found to know the names of 200 different objects, and in 2011 Chaser learned 1,022 unique objects.
Other breeds may be less interested in playing with or fetching toys. For example, greyhounds such as salukis and greyhounds are primarily bred for hunting or racing and are therefore generally more difficult to train. They may not show any interest in toys at all and be far less motivated to please the handler.
Smart dogs can learn new names quickly.
Both test dogs in this study received extensive training through play and social interaction to pay attention to the names and characteristics of the toys. This could make them more likely to notice the differences between new and familiar toys and to care about the verbal cues associated with them.
While their training was not formal, it was nonetheless positive reinforcement training, a powerful method of teaching animals and people. The dogs have undoubtedly learned their skills to a great extent.
It is entirely possible to train all dogs to perform tasks, including learning the names of objects. However, the degree to which they are willing and able to learn and perform the task depends heavily on the breed of dog and the motivation of the individual dog.
If your pet is an Afghan or Saint Bernard, don’t expect them to be interested in spending hours getting toys for you. On the other hand, if you have a border collie or poodle, their abilities can only be limited by your imagination and commitment to playing with them.