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Gifted dogs can learn words after hearing them four times

A new study from Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) shows that some dogs can learn a new word after hearing it only four times. The preliminary findings indicate that most dogs do not learn words, such as the names of objects, without extensive training. However, there are some dogs that have an exceptional gift for learning language.

Researchers with the Family Dog Project from the ELTE Department of Ethology have been analyzing talented dogs that seem to learn words in the absence of any formal training. According to the study, the dogs learn language simply by socializing with their owners in a human family. 

The research was focused on two gifted dogs, a Border Collie named Whisky from Norway and a Yorkshire terrier named Vicky Nina from Brazil. The experts tested their ability to learn a new word after hearing it only a few times.

“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 – 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,” explained study first author Claudia Fugazza.

In the first task, the dogs showed that they were able to select the correct toy when their owner said an unfamiliar name. They did this by excluding all the other toys that had already been assigned a name, and by then selecting the one toy that had not. However, when they were asked to recognize the toy by its name, the dogs were unsuccessful.

It turned out the dogs were successfully learning words while they were socializing with their owners, who pronounced the name of toys as they played with them together. 

Both Whisky and Vicky Nina were able to select the toys based on the names pronounced by their owners, even though the names were only spoken four times. 

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

The team tested 20 other dogs using the same condition, but none of them showed evidence of learning the names of the toys. This confirms that the capacity for dogs to learn words rapidly is very rare without formal training.

Even the gifted dogs could not commit the words to memory after such a few exposures, and the words faded pretty fast. Whisky and Vicky Nina could remember the words a few minutes after they learned them, but had typically forgotten them by an hour later without any further exposure. 

To investigate further, the ELTE team recently launched the Genius Dog Challenge, and the project has since gone viral in social media.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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