Researchers have determined that exceptional dogs only have to hear a new word four times before they learn it. While most dogs don't seem to learn any words at all unless they are trained extensively, according to preliminary research, some talented dogs are able to learn words pretty easily. Researchers at the Family Dog Project, part of the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, found that some dogs are able to learn words simply through exposure during normal interaction with their human family.
Publishing in Scientific Reports, the researchers tested whether new words could be learned by a border collie named Whisky who is already known for her categorization skills, and a Yorkshire terrier named Vicky Nina. The test confronted the dog with toys, seven of which were already familiar to the dog and one that was new. The dog was tested on its ability to select the new toy, which had a new name.
"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 four times," explained the first study author Claudia Fugazza.
If the dog chose the new toy when its owner called for it with a new name, the dog displayed that it could exclude toys with other names, and opt for the new toy in an exclusion-based task. But the dogs learned the name of the toy first in another task; a social test had the dogs and owners play together while the owner spoke the new toy's name four times. Both dogs successfully learned the toy's name this way.
"Such rapid learning seems to be similar to the way human children acquire their vocabulary around two to three years of age," said study co-author Adam Miklósi, head of the Department of Ethology.
If the dogs were given another new name for the new toy, they would fail the exclusion test. The researchers tested 20 other dogs in this way, but none learned this quickly. The researchers suggested that the ability to rapidly learn new words is rare in dogs.