Many of us communicate with our dogs, but how much of what we say do they understand? Some dogs appear to be particularly proficient at identifying the W-word, according to anecdotal footage, but is there a limit to their linguistic skills?
A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports put a group of dogs to the test in memorizing the names of toys in order to find out. They sought to see if rigorous training at a young age affected the dogs' ability to learn, or if canines could be trained to link words with specific things regardless of their age.
To do so, they engaged a group of puppies and a group of middle-aged dogs in the same intensive training program, which included introducing them to a toy as the owner repeated the toy's name. A second toy was presented after the dog had acquired its name, and this process was repeated for the three-month training period. The Family Dog Project enlisted 40 dogs to put them to the test at home and in the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.
"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, the project's chief researcher, said 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.”
Only seven of the 40 dogs demonstrated an aptitude for comprehending and learning words. One of the seven dogs, Olivia, had never learned object names previously, whereas the others had a well-developed object vocabulary prior to the study.
Olivia, although starting behind her pupper peers, caught up in just two months, accumulating 21 words. The fact that she was able to do so suggests that dogs who are especially skilled at learning words don't always need prior experience, according to the researchers.
Moreover, while most of the outstanding learners are Border collies, there were 18 Border collies in the non-learners group, indicating that just being a member of this breed does not ensure above-average language 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.”
Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University continue to explore dogs' learning capacity through the Genius Dog Challenge, so if you believe your home might be home to a vocabulary superstar, keep an eye out.