Can a dog learn words?

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Dear Diary...

They're not real smart. Humans, I mean. I think they only know 260 words. I know, we've been whining at them for years, trying to get them to study their vocab, but here's what it's come to: 260 words. And as far as I can tell, they're all nouns.

black and white border collie, amidst flowers, looks at camera, tongue out
Hi. I'm Rico, and here's my pretty picture. I learn words faster than a chimpanzee!
All border collie photos property of Baus/ Krzeslowski

Honest. I just got back from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. You know, the place named for that guy who studied some teeny-weeny part of the atom. You'd think the cream of the intellectual crop would hang out there. But you know what they did? They put me in a room with a bunch of toys. Familiar toys, the ones I'm used to mouthing 24/7 when I'm with my owner. She's really nice to me; gives me a lot of attention, and puts all my toys around the house and asks me to fetch them.

Click on the 1.7MB movie: Here I am, getting tested. First, they ask me to bring two familiar toys: "tyrex," the blue dinosaur, then the "weihnachtsmann," the little red doll. Then comes the "hard" part: They ask me to find "sirikid," which I've never heard of before. I've never seen the white bunny, so I bring it. Everybody makes a big fuss over me.
Courtesy Julia Fischer

She asks for them by name.

Anyway, these scientists aren't real swift. They put 10 of my toys on the rug, and my owner asked me to fetch one.

As I said, that's no big deal. So then they tried to trick me. They set out seven familiar toys, and one I've never seen. They ask for a "sirikid," a word I've never heard before.

I'm no dummy. I figure new word, new toy, so I go over and fetch the new thing to my owner.

She's not amazed -- after all, she had me show off on TV, fetching stuff -- but these "scientists" go ape! They act as if it's a big deal for a smart, motivated dog like a border collie, to know what's familiar and what's not.

Domestic bliss A border collie seems to learn and remember new words the same way a child does.

Honest, diary, I just don't know. Ever since our ancestors first domesticated Homo sapiens more than 10,000 years ago, we've been acting stupid so they would fork over cash for the dog chow. But to think that these imbecilic animals have started to believe they were the smarty pants...

Chaser follows on Rico’s tradition — with a vocabulary beyond 1,000 words! Like Rico, Chaser can find a new object if asked to find an unknown name.
Video: ABC News

Don't think I'm complaining. These folks with the clipboards scratched and petted me and all. But they had me do the same trick over and over. I'm as eager to please as the next pet dog, but how many times do you have to do a trick to prove you can do it?

Ever since I was 10 months, my owners have spent hours playing with me every day. At first, they put three things -- balls and baby toys, but never bratwursts -- around the house, and asked me to bring one of them, "Wo ist der ball," or something. Didn't I mention? They speak German. That's because they are German.

Anyway, I got better at this lame game, and they bought about every baby doll in Europe, and gave each a new name. I'm no dummy. Show me a new toy, and give it a name, and I'm going to remember it.

Except the scientists didn't believe me. They put me through these tests. Even if they aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer, it's smart to put up with scientists, because they have REALLY good treats, and they don't mind if you slobber a bit as you scarf them down.

red rubber bone says 'funtime'
One Simple Test!

First, they put a bunch of my old, familiar toys in a room and asked me to fetch them by name. Big deal. Out of 40 tries, I got 37 right. Well, that got their interest, lemme tell you. You know what, diary? The researchers said my "language size was comparable to that of language-trained apes, dolphins, sea lions and parrots."

Sea lions?

Then they tried something slightly less boring. They put out seven familiar toys, and one new one, and asked me to fetch something with a name I'd never heard. "Fetch the gezundheit," they'd say. And, being smarter than the average scientist, I mouthed the new toy and brought it over.

If they'd wanted one of the toys I already knew, I figured, they would have asked for it by name. Or maybe I figure new names go with new things...

They got excited. You would of thought I had just invented a brand new kind of dog food.

Then they waited four weeks. I thought they'd gone out and gotten real jobs, but no, back they come, smiles on their faces and a "challenging" task on their minds. They showed me more batches of toys, including a few of the new ones I'd seen last time around. And in 10 tests, I fetched the new one seven times.

plush duck

They figured I'd learned and remembered the new name, after hearing it just once.

Now, I asked Julia Fischer, who studies something called evolutionary anthropology, and who seemed to be running these shenanigans, what was up. She told me about this theory that children learn new words with "fast mapping" (which is not about finding the shortest path to the food bowl).

Instead, kids, being as smart as me, Rico, the border collie, seem to associate a new word with a new object.

Human children, she says, learn about 10 new words a day, starting at about age 2, and wind up with a vocabulary of about 60,000 words. Funny thing is, most of those new words aren't defined for them. No sirree. Just like me, Rico, the bright border collie, they seem to learn the meaning of words from the context.

Anyway, once she started, Julia Fischer couldn't stop explaining. The people who study the way children learn language first thought fast mapping helped for learning words for colors. Now, she says, "People have thought that maybe it's used generally for all sorts of names and facts about the world."

Ready for the good part? "Nobody," she added, "ever considered that it could be also found in another animal."

plush tiger-striped ring

Excuse me while I scratch. Dry skin. That happens when you get old. Me, I'm 10, did I mention that, diary?

Anyway, Fischer and some other eggheads sent this "study" to a big-time science magazine called, can you believe this? "Science." The magazine sent it to another professor, who wrote that my ability to learn words the first time was comparable to "children and adults who were tested using similar designs."

I found it humiliating to be compared to an animal that can't herd sheep or take apart a garbage heap, but I guess that's the price of free dog food.

Anyway, I'm a border collie, and I don't think philosophy is a career that will fill your daily bowl. But Fischer describes what I'm doing as, "Learning by exclusion, establishing implicitly a link between the new name and the new toy, without explicit instructions."

white plush dog toy

I asked Julia how I, Rico, could learn words so quickly. She said, "Either you know the names of all these seven toys you've seen before, so the new toy must be the one, because you've never heard that name before. Or, this is the novel toy, so it must have the new name. But they both come out to the same result."

Dogs need not apply

Fast mapping, according to the eggheads, seems part of the basic brain apparatus for learning language.

Sure, some sea lions also learn by exclusion, but nobody has shown that they remember their words.

I do. And that's the part (excuse my boasting, diary) that really impressed Fischer. "What really blew us away was ... four weeks later, when we tested him again, it was really astonishing, without any further contact or experience, Rico was still able to know what the name was."

Anyway, as I said, I am Rico. I am a good listener -- the best kind -- because I don't talk (although I do growl, bark and whine). And I admit that I don't know some of those big words that Julia uses.

Would you like me to fetch Tyrex the dinosaur, or Goko the white rag doll?

David Tenenbaum

Kevin Barrett, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer


  1. Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence for "Fast Mapping," by J. Kaminski, J. Call and Julia Fischer, Science, June 8, 2004.