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Dogs understand that some words refer to objects

A recent study led by the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (ELTE) has found that dogs possess a remarkable ability to comprehend human language beyond mere command response. 

The experts discovered that dogs not only react to certain words with learned behaviors but also mentally associate these words with specific objects, thereby activating object memories upon hearing their names.

Word comprehension in non-verbal communicators

Traditionally, assessing word comprehension in non-verbal communicators, such as infants and animals, involves tasks that require the subject to physically select or retrieve an object upon hearing its name. 

In these settings, even the most intelligent dogs often perform no better than chance, fetching objects at random rather than demonstrating a true understanding of word-object associations.

Dogs learning object words

However, the scientists approached this challenge from a new angle by measuring brain activity in dogs through non-invasive EEG techniques. This method aimed to capture the dogs’ implicit understanding of object names without relying on their physical responses. 

In the experiments, dog owners would verbally identify toys familiar to their pets, sometimes presenting the correct toy and other times showing an unrelated object. For instance, an owner might say, “Zara, look, the ball,” while either presenting a ball or a different toy, with the dog’s brain activity being recorded throughout.

Distinct brain activity patterns

The findings were striking, revealing distinct brain activity patterns when dogs viewed objects that matched the spoken word versus when they saw mismatched items. This differentiation mirrors human brain responses and is considered solid evidence of word comprehension. 

In addition, the researchers found more pronounced brain activity differences for words the dogs were more familiar with, bolstering the case for their understanding of object names.

Dogs’ understanding of object words

Contrary to the researchers’ initial hypothesis, a dog’s vocabulary size did not influence its ability to make these mental connections. 

“Because typical dogs learn instruction words rather than object names, and there are only a handful of dogs with a large vocabulary of object words, we expected that dogs’ capacity for referential understanding of object words will be linked to the number of object words they know; but it wasn’t,” said co-author Lilla Magyari, an expert in psycholinguistics at ELTE and the University of Stavanger.

“It doesn’t matter how many object words a dog understands, known words activate mental representations anyway, suggesting that this ability is generally present in dogs and not just in some exceptional individuals who know the names of many objects,” added lead author Marianna Boros, an ethologist at ELTE.

Linguistic capabilities of dogs

This finding challenges existing beliefs about the unique nature of human language comprehension and has significant implications for our understanding of language evolution. It also offers a fresh perspective for dog owners on the depth of their pets’ linguistic capabilities.

“Your dog understands more than he or she shows signs of,” Magyari said. “Dogs are not merely learning a specific behavior to certain words, but they might actually understand the meaning of some individual words as humans do.”

Future research plans

In future studies, the researchers plan to explore whether this aptitude for referential language understanding is exclusive to dogs or if it extends to other mammals. 

Moreover, they are particularly intrigued by the origins of this capability, its dependence on the dogs’ close relationship with humans, and the reasons why more dogs don’t overtly demonstrate their understanding of object words.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.


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