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Can you teach an old dog new words? Yes, study finds

Dogs can learn new words after hearing them only four times.

Fundamental Research icon Fundamental Research

It comes as no surprise to see a dog running to its bowl after it hears “food” or fetch its collar when its owner utters “outside”. There are a few more simple words and commands that dogs pick up along the way. According to new research published in ‘Scientific Reports’, some dogs learn the name of a new object after hearing it four times. Until now, it was believed that this ability only belonged to humans.

Clever canines

Animal behaviour researchers from Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University experimented with a border collie from Norway called Whisky, who knew 59 objects by name, and a Yorkshire terrier from Brazil named Vicky Nina, who knew 42 toys. “We wanted to know under which conditions the gifted dogs may learn novel words,” first author Claudia Fugazza, a researcher at the university’s Department of Ethology, told ‘CNN’. “To test this, we exposed Whisky and Vicky Nina to the new words in two different conditions.” In the first, the dogs demonstrated that they were capable of choosing the new toy when their owner spoke a new name. This proved that dogs can select by excluding all the other toys because they already have a name and selecting the only one that doesn’t. However, they wouldn’t learn the name of the toy in this way. In the second situation, the owners played with their dogs while pronouncing the name of the toy. This was an effective technique to learn the name of the toy, even after hearing it only four times. Whisky and Vicky Nina chose the toys based on their names when they had learned the names through this method. “Importantly, in both conditions the dogs heard the name of the new toy only four times,” Fugazza commented. “Such rapid learning seems to be similar to the way human children acquire their vocabulary around 2-3 years of age,” explained co-author Ádám Miklósi, head of the Department of Ethology. The findings reveal that this ability is limited to gifted or trained dogs. The researchers also tested 20 other dogs that weren’t able to learn new names after a few hearings. “These findings cast doubt on the assumption that the ability to learn word sounds linked to particular objects is unique to humans,” Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor in cognitive neuroscience at University College London, told ‘The Guardian’.

Is your dog a genius?

Curious to see just how smart your four-legged friend is? Go ahead and try the experiment at home. But don’t be too disappointed with the results, advised Jan Hoole, a biology lecturer at Keele University in the United Kingdom, in ‘The Conversation’. “[D]on’t worry if your dog doesn’t have this ability, it might just be down to their breed or previous experience.” Hoole added: “If your pet is an Afghan hound or a St Bernard, you should not expect it to be interested in spending hours fetching toys for you. If, on the other hand, you have a border collie or a poodle, their abilities may only be limited by your imagination and your dedication to playing with them.”


dog, Whisky, Vicky Nina, word, teach, learn

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