Canine: gifted canines can memorise 12 new phrases in per week

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A border collie dog – although not one of the six gifted canines in the study

Elayne Massaini/Getty Images

Dogs with a special ability to understand human language can learn as many as 12 new words per week – and usually still remember those words after a two-month lapse.

Researchers have, thus far, identified about a dozen pet dogs across the globe that possess the rare gift of word learning. Unlike other well-trained dogs that are able to distinguish between common commands like “sit” and “stay”, these dogs associate objects with words and can have a vocabulary exceeding 100 terms.

In the latest in a series of studies on these Gifted Word Learner dogs, scientists have discovered that the animals can acquire human words at speeds similar to those of one-year-old human babies, says Shany Dror at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.

Less than a year ago, Dror and her colleagues discovered that some dogs have an apparently exceptional natural ability to acquire object names, and they concluded that having this  ability was similar to humans having musical or mathematical giftedness.

To study this rare ability further, they used social media and announcements at international conferences to look for more Gifted Word Learner dogs throughout the world. In the end, they found only six qualifying dogs – all Border Collies – with an average age of 3.6 years and an average vocabulary of 26 words. The 3 males and 3 females live in the US, Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, and Hungary.

The researchers sent each dog’s owner a box containing 6 new toys. Dror says her team then gave the owners 6 days to teach their dogs the names of the toys with their usual methods. These generally involved playing with the dog and each toy, often for just a half an hour a day.

At the end of the 6-day learning period, the research team used online video conferencing to test the dogs’ ability to pick out each toy by name from a scattering of multiple old and new toys on the floor. They asked each owner to sit with their dog in one room and tell them to fetch a given toy, saying “Bring the alien!” for example, from a second room equipped with a video camera. All the dogs successfully brought back at least 5 of the 6 correct toys.

The team then sent a second box containing 12 new toys and repeated the process. All the dogs successfully brought back at least 11 of the 12 toys.

“The dog in Hungary actually knows more Hungarian than I do!” says Dror, who is originally from Israel.

Afterwards, half the new toys were stored for 1 month, and the other half were stored for 2 months, and the dogs were tested again after each storage period. Five of the dogs remembered all the toy names after 1 month, and 4 dogs remembered all or almost all of them after 2 months.

“We knew these dogs were fast learners, but I was surprised they were able to learn so many toys, so fast, and then remember them without mixing them up,” Dror says.

Gifted Word Learner dogs provide an excellent animal model for studying the way humans acquire language says Dror. She says they may be a more suitable model than the apes and marine mammals that have previously served that role since pet dogs are raised in the home, as are human children.

Having an animal model of language acquisition is important for research, in part because it offers a basis of comparison for understanding which language-learning skills are specific to humans, and which are not. “We want to understand what makes humans different,” Dror says.

Journal reference: Royal Society: Open Science, DOI: 10.1098/rsos.210976

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