‘Gifted’ dogs learn new words after hearing them just four times, study finds

'Such rapid learning similar to way children acquire vocabulary aged two or three,' says co-author of study

Tom Batchelor
Tuesday 26 January 2021 10:41
Clever Whisky with some of her toys
Clever Whisky with some of her toys

Talented dogs are capable of learning new words after hearing them only a handful of times, a study found.

Researchers noted that a select few “genius” dogs could learn the name of their new toy after hearing it just four times while playing with their owners.

“Such rapid learning seems to be similar to the way human children acquire their vocabulary around two or three years of age,” said Adam Miklósi, head of ethology at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University and co-author of the study.

The study concluded that most dogs do not learn new words unless extensively trained, but some individuals showed exceptional abilities.

Among the gifted dogs scientists discovered were Whisky, a Border Collie from Norway, and Vicky Nina, a Yorkshire terrier from Brazil – both of whom participated in the study.

Vicky Nina surrounded by her toys

“We wanted to know under which conditions the gifted dogs may learn novel words,” said co-author of the study Claudia Fugazza. 

“To test this, we exposed Whisky and Vicky Nina to the new words in two different conditions during an exclusion-based task and in a social playful context with their owners. Importantly, in both conditions the dogs heard the name of the new toy only four times.”

The first experiment was set up so that the dogs were confronted with seven familiar, already named toys together with a new one.

In this task, the dogs showed that they were able to select the new toy when their owner spoke a new name, confirming that dogs can choose by excluding all the other toys because they already have a name and choosing the only one that did not.

A second test showed the dogs could go even further by learning the name of the toy simply by playing with their owners, who repeated it just four times.

Whisky and Vicky Nina were able to select the named item from a pile of toys when they had learned the words this way.

Twenty other dogs were tested but none showed evidence of having learnt the toy names, leading the researchers to conclude that the capacity to learn words rapidly and without formal training is only present in the most gifted dogs.

However researchers found that after so few exposures to the new word Whisky and Vicky Nina's memory decayed quickly.

While in the first test, conducted a couple of minutes after hearing the toy names, the dogs were successful, they did not succeed in most of the tests conducted after 10 minutes and one hour.

Whisky now knows the names of more than 100 toys, the team said.

The researchers behind the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, have launched a Genius Dog Challenge to find out more about the number of words that the gifted dogs can learn in such a short timeframe.

Vicky Nina has since died but Whisky is participating in the project, together with five other “talented” dogs the scientists found around the world.

A study published in 2011 found that a border collie called Chaser was able to learn and retain the names of 1,022 objects after a three-year period of intensive training.

The research said Chaser could touch an object with her nose, her paw, or retrieve it, suggesting she understood the words referred to the object’s name and not to the command of retrieving them. She was also said to have been trained to categorise objects, such as balls and frisbees.

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