Can dogs learn new words quickly? Really smart ones can in minutes, study says

BUDAPEST, Hungary — They may be a little biased, but most dog owners probably think their furry friend is the smartest canine on the block. Some owners even believe their dog knows every word they’re saying. Well a new study finds they could be right, if their pet is brainy enough. Researchers in Budapest say talented dogs have the ability to quickly learn new words after hearing them a few times.

A team with the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University say this isn’t the case for most pooches. Their ongoing studies find dogs either have to be extensively trained or possess exceptional abilities to quickly interpret what humans say. In other words, if your dog demonstrates that they know what an object is after hearing its name for the first time, you’ve got a really smart pup on your hands.

Learning in gifted dogs ‘similar to way human children acquire vocabulary’ in toddler years

To test the difference between super intelligent dogs and average canines, researchers first examined two exceptionally talented dogs named Whisky and Vicky Nina. In Whisky’s case, the team in Budapest has already written studies about her amazing skills, including the ability to categorize different toys without any special training.

Border Collie Whisky stands with her toys, including one with a brand new name, as part of an intelligence test. (Credit: Claudia Fugazza)

“We wanted to know under which conditions the gifted dogs may learn novel words. To test this, we exposed Whisky and Vicky Nina to the new words in two different conditions” explains Claudia Fugazza, first author of the study, in a media release. “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 4 times.”

In the exclusion-based task, researchers confronted the duo with eight toys. Seven of the toys the dogs already had names for, but the eighth was a completely new item. Whisky and Vicky Nina successfully selected the new toy after excluding all the toys they knew by name. Study authors point out, however, that this didn’t actually teach the dogs a new name. Instead, it reinforced their ability to remember names they already knew. In fact, the study discovered that when Whisky and Vicky Nina had to pick out another new toy, the talented pair failed the test.

In the second test, a social exercise, researchers played with the two dogs as they pronounced the names of the toys they selected. Study authors say the dogs successfully learned a new toy’s name through playing with it, even after only hearing the word four times. Whisky and Vicky Nina could then correctly identify the object when they heard the name again.

“Such rapid learning seems to be similar to the way human children acquire their vocabulary around 2-3 years of age,” says study co-author Adam Miklósi.

How do average dogs do at remembering new words?

The study then examined how well 20 other dogs remember new words using the same tests. Unlike Whisky and Vicky Nina, this group could not learn the new words after hearing them only four times.

Researchers also discovered that, along with being a rare gift, the ability to remember human words quickly is also a temporary one. More tests on Whisky and Vicky Nina’s memories revealed that the two dogs forgot the new words an hour later.

Carrying on without a special friend

Whisky is now participating in the Genius Dog Challenge, a project which has gone viral on social media. Eötvös Loránd University researchers are looking to find more gifted dogs who display incredible learning abilities.

Unfortunately, Vicky Nina passed away following this new study.

The study appears in Scientific Reports.

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