Skip to main content

How Dogs Learn The Meaning Of Words

The average dog can learn as many as 150 words, a fairly substantial vocabulary beyond sit, stay and come. Research with several border collies has brought those vocabulary numbers up beyond 400 words, and a border collie named Chaser has learned the names of 1022 objects, which he can differentiate and fetch on command.  There appears to be no upper limit in Chaser's vocabulary lessons, as he continues to add words to his lexicon.

In the wake of such impressive results, researchers Emile van der Zee, Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills sought to determine the presence of a key feature of human word comprehension in canine learning. In the research article, Word Generalization by a Dog (Canis familiaris): Is Shape Important?, the researchers sought to determine if shape bias existed in dogs as it does in humans.

Experiments with human 2 year olds, have shown a "shape bias" exists in the learning of new words.  Simply put, once the child associates a name with an object, it then generalizes the shape of that object to other objects with the same shape.  For example, a child taught the word ball, when presented with a group of new objects, will seek other spherical shapes regardless of their size and texture.  Children associate ball with round; do dogs learn the same way?

Using a 5 year old border collie named Gable, the researchers used random words, such as DAX or GNARK to create a word association with an object.  Once the word-object association was made, researchers began to replace the familiar object with new object choices.  When presented with new objects to retrieve, Gable sought objects that were similar in size to the original object, without regard to the shape of the object.  As Gable became more familiar with the word-object mapping, he replaced the size preference with an association of similar texture of the object. As Gable better understood the word-object relationship, he relied on how the object felt in his mouth to determine the best choice for retrieval.

I am reminded of a scene in the film, Best In Show, when the toy, Busy Bee, goes missing.  The pet shop owner offers up a toy similar in size and shape to the panicked dog owner.  She rejects the new toy as it is obviously not a bee, but is instead a fish.  The pet shop owner tries to convince her to purchase the toy stating, "I think the dog is responding to the shape and strips on the toy."  Yes and no. The dog would respond to the similar size and plush material, but not the stripes or shape of the toy.

As a practical application of the research, those of you needing to replace a treasured toy should seek toys of similar size, texture and firmness.  Ultimately, the dog is responding to how the toy feels in his mouth.

How this research applies to dog training is an interesting question.  Vision is the primary sense of humans.  Therefore it makes sense that we would rely on object shape in determining associations.  Scent is the primary sense of dogs, hearing is secondary and sight tertiary; scent and sound were not presented as  differentiating factors for Gable.

In real world dog training, scent and sound are both factors in our dog's learning.  The smell and sound of treats and objects are likely to be confounding factors for our dogs, unnoticed by humans in our sight driven world.  If you find yourself experiencing a brick wall in your training, if your dog seems to be stubbornly missing the point, consider that he may be responding to another aspect of the situation.  He may have made an association that seems correct to him based on scent or sound.  When you seem not to be on the same page, take a broader view of the situation, and perhaps change objects or locations.

Click here to review the research article Word Generalization by a Dog (Canis familiaris): Is Shape Important?  The online article at PLOS One also includes videos of Gable's training sessions.  Enjoy!

Popular posts from this blog

99 Names for Female Border Collies | Scottish, Irish and Welsh Dog Names

The superstar of the herding group, the border collie is keenly alert to every opportunity, at work and at play. Their intense expression is an extension of their ability to move and work stock by using their "eye." A natural gathering dog, the border collie assumes a predatory stance, the signature crouch, and stares down the stock. She is then able to guide the stock from one pasture to another or round them up, and shed individual sheep for shearing or vaccinations. These energetic dogs need exercise and a job to do.  However, that job may be something as simple as a bone or chew toy. They are very people oriented, and like to check-in with their people whether they are hard at work or play. The are sensitive dogs that respond quickly to praise or light scolding. Too heavy of a hand or voice can easily crush their spirit. Traditional Border Collie Names for Females Scanning the International Sheepdog Society's (ISDS) database of over 300,000 entries in t

70 Unique Names for Dogs From Mythology and Folklore

Mythology offers many meaningful name ideas for man's best friend. The names of gods, goddesses, heroes and monsters can imbue your dog's name with magical powers and mystical abilities that allow them to anticipate your will. Choose your mythological dog name wisely, for some names may become a self-fulfilling prophecy! These names have been selected as some of the more meaningful and unusual names from mythology along with their stories. Feel free to recommend your favorite names from mythology in the comments section below. We always love new suggestions. Name Categories: Names for Female Dogs from Greek Mythology Names for Males Dogs from Greek Mythology Badass Big Dog Names from Folklore and Diverse Mythologies Names for Dogs from Norse Mythology Lyrical, Mystical and Mythical Names for Dogs  Nike - Winged Goddess of Victory     Photo Credit By Jörg Bittner Unna   Greek Goddess Names for Female Dogs Circe - Daughter of Titan sun god, Helio

250 Rich Dog Names and Cat Calls

Famous Tycoons Make Rich Names for Dogs For many of these illustrious tycoons, just the mention of their last name brings instant recognition of untold wealth and fortunes that changed the course of a nation. If you would like to pal around with a mogul mutt or purebred prince, consider one of these rich dog names for your best friend. Bezos, Jeff Branson, Richard Buffett, Warren Carnegie, Andrew Croesus Gates, Bill Gould, Jay Green, Hetty Hilton, Conrad Hughes, Howard Hutton, Barbara Jobs, Steve Kennedy, Joe Midas Morgan, J.P. Musk, Elon Reeve Onassis, Aristotle Oprah Rockafella, John D. Rothschild Soros Pickens,  T. Boone  Tesla Tudor Vanderbilt, Commodore Windsor Pet Names From Slang for Rich and Riches When considering opulent names for cats and dogs, chose those that evoke images of the landed gentry of  the baroque era. These synonyms for the splendor of the rich as well as their riches make excellent dog names. Kitties will luxuriate th