Gifted Dogs Learn New Words Rapidly

Some talented dogs can learn an object's name after hearing it just four times.

Yorkshire terrier Vicky Nina from Brazil
Yorkshire terrier Vicky Nina from Brazil with her toys.

Marco Ojeda

Sometimes your dog might pretend he doesn’t know his name. But say the word “treat” and it’s amazing how quickly he remembers his vocabulary.

It may take a “normal” dog a little bit of time to figure out what you want. However, there are some talented dogs that can learn the meaning of words after hearing them only four times, a new study finds.

The average dog can learn as many as 165 words, according to psychologist and canine researcher Stanley Coren. Really smart “super dogs” (in the top 20% of dog intelligence) can learn as many as 250 words.

Researchers from The Family Dog Project, a global dog research project, have been investigating these super, brainy dogs that easily learn word meanings just through everyday interaction with their families.

In a new study, published in Scientific Reports, they tested a border collie named Whisky and a Yorkshire terrier named Vicky Nina, for their ability to learn a new word after hearing it only four times.

Most dogs don’t actually learn words to describe the name of things in their world, the researchers suggest.

“It seems that most dogs can learn ‘commands’ by associative learning but most dogs do not learn object names at all,” first author Claudia Fugazza, a researcher in the department of ethology in Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, tells Treehugger.

“We hypothesize that the very individuals that learn object names, like Whisky and Vicky Nina, are talented individuals and that they learn that objects have names. This may enable them to learn new names at a fast rate.”

They dubbed these dogs who can learn that objects have names “gifted.”

“At the moment we have found very few such individuals, most of them, but not all, are border collies,” Fugazza says. “So, from the very little data that we have now, it seems that this capacity is more frequent in this breed, but not exclusive to it. It should also be considered that the vast majority of border collies do not seem to learn that objects can have names.”

Fetching Unfamiliar Toys

border collie Whisky with her toys
Whisky is a border collie from Norway. Claudia Fugazza

For the study, researchers first tested how many words Whisky and Vicky Nina knew, asking them to fetch their dog toys. Whisky knew 59 objects and Vicky Nina knew 42 items.

Then they tried several situations to see how the dogs best learned the names of new toys. First, they placed a new toy in a group of familiar toys, then asked the dogs to retrieve a toy after hearing its name only four times. The dogs were successful, mostly by process of elimination.

But when they placed two unfamiliar toys in a group of familiar toys and asked the dogs to retrieve one by name, the dogs weren’t as able to select the new toy. Whisky was correct eight out of 20 times (40%) and Vicky Nina was correct 12 out of 20 times (60%). The exclusion-based tasks became more difficult because there were two new items.

Then, the dogs played with a new toy with their owners. Again, the owners used the toy’s name only four times. This time, Whisky was correct 17 out of 24 times (71%) and Vicky Nina was correct 15 out of 20 times (75%).

“The rapid learning that we observed seems to parallel children's capacity to learn many new words at a fast rate around the age of 18 months,” Fugazza says. “But we do not know whether the learning mechanisms behind this learning are the same for humans and dogs.”

To see whether most dogs would learn words this same way, the researchers tested 20 other dogs, but they showed no indication of learning the names of the new toys. The testing confirming that learning words quickly, without formal training, is very rare and is only an ability held by a few gifted dogs, the researchers say.

So, don't feel bad if your dog looks at you lazily when you ask him to get a toy or a ball.

“We do not use the word ‘intelligence’ but this is a very specific cognitive skill: rapid receptive vocabulary learning. This seems to be present only in some gifted individual dogs,” Fugazza says.

“It does not imply that other dogs are not brilliant in other things. For example, dogs in general are extremely good at learning socially from humans, just by observing us they learn a lot of things!”

To continue their research and find out more about gifted dogs and how much they can learn, researchers at Eötvös Loránd University launched the Genius Dog Challenge. Vicky Nina, unfortunately, passed away and couldn't take part. Whisky is competing with five other talented dogs from around the world.

View Article Sources
  1. Fugazza, Claudia, et al. "Rapid Learning of Object Names in Dogs." Scientific Reports, vol. 11, no. 1, 2021, doi:10.1038/s41598-021-81699-2

  2. "Canine Researcher Puts Dogs’ Intelligence On Par With 2-Year-Old Human." American Psychological Association, 2009.