How Do Some Dogs Learn Words So Quickly?

How Do Some Dogs Learn Words So Quickly?
Vicky Nina, a clever dog, with her toys. (Photo: Claudia Fugazza)

Vicky Nina, a Yorkshire terrier, and Whisky, a border collie, were given a straightforward task that few dogs can complete: Amid a trove of toys the two pets were already familiar with, they had to identify a new toy by name — more specifically, by the fact that it was the only object they didn’t know the name of. Not only did the talented dogs pick the right toy, but they managed to do it quickly, after just four repetitions.

Rapid-object name learning tasks are typically thought of as a human-specific trait. Clearly not, though it’s not at all common among canines. The analysis of the two dogs’ quick thinking was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“The dogs excluded the familiar toys and chose the new one,” Claudia Fugazza, an animal behaviorist at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary and lead author of the recent paper, said in an email. “But this does not necessarily imply that they would learn the association between the new word and the new toy.”

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The dogs’ ability to sort goes beyond your standard parlor tricks, as dog commands usually revolve around action-based words. Your dog may be able to sit, roll over, fetch, and more, but being able to grab a specific toy by name is a different can of worms that some dogs are just better at. But before you go extolling the virtues of “smart” dog breeds over “dumber” ones, keep in mind that there’s plenty of cognitive variation within breeds. According to Molly Byrne, an expert in comparative cognition at Boston University’s Canine Cognition Lab who isn’t affiliated with the recent paper, this means that breeds can be tough to separate on a cognitive level.

“This study was well done in terms of what it is. Obviously, it’s a very small sample size of dogs that can do this, but that’s not a failing of the researchers,” says Byrne in a phone call. “A lot of dogs learn words that are commands, versus these dogs which are learning object words. The question of how they’re able to generalise the word to either the object or the action would be a really interesting way to go with this.”

It's hard to know exactly what dogs hear when we talk to them. (Photo: Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images, Getty Images) It’s hard to know exactly what dogs hear when we talk to them. (Photo: Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images, Getty Images)

While the dogs were able to make the association between the new word and the new toy, they didn’t retain the information. Fugazza mentions that such exclusion-based tasks aren’t conducive to long-term memory gains, nor is learning things rapidly in general (for dogs or for humans). Social contexts, she adds, would be better for a dog trying to remember something.

The team’s research was part of the Family Dog Project, a longstanding dog research project that aims to study canine companions in the context of their forever homes, so to speak, rather than in a lab.

Byrne, whose lab has been studying canine cognition over Zoom since the pandemic started, said that different results emerge, as the dogs don’t need to acclimate to an environment filled with the smell of other dogs and surrounded by unfamiliar researchers.

Vicky Nina, now deceased, and Whisky showcase the impressive capacities of the canine brain. It’s hard to say what it means for dogs writ large, though, as very few dogs sort objects in this way. Furthermore, with tasks that aren’t exclusion-based, like those of the viral “talking” dogs of TikTok, it’s impossible to tell what the dog is really thinking when it press a button that says “love.”

“It might be that very few humans know what love is,” Byrne said. “It’s a very complex concept that means a lot of things, and I think it’d be very difficult to prove that a dog understands the nuance of that label.”

So, the dog singularity is far-off yet. But that doesn’t take away from the skill of these sorting dogs, who figured that the sound they didn’t recognise was the toy they didn’t recognise.