Whether you can teach an old dog new tricks might be a moot point, but it seems some canines can rapidly learn new words, and do so through play.
While young children are known to quickly pick up the names of new objects, the skill appears to be rare in animals.
However some studies have suggested certain dogs can learn what objects are called. Among them a border collie called Rico reportedly managed to learn the names of more than 200 items, while Chaser, also a border collie, learned the names of more than 1,000 objects.
But while experiments suggested they quickly picked up names by associating a novel word with a new item among familiar toys, subsequent research suggested that conclusion could be barking up the wrong tree.
Now researchers say they’ve found some dogs are indeed able to learn the names of new objects, and rapidly – and that this occurs through play.
“It is similar to the situation [by] which human children learn words, but we don’t know if the mechanism [in the brain] is the same,” said Dr Claudia Fugazza of Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, an author of the new study.
Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, Fugazza and colleagues reveal how they tested two dogs whose owners reported they were good at picking up names: a four-year old border collie called Whisky, and a nine year-old Yorkshire terrier called Vicky Nina.
After confirming that both dogs were indeed able to select known toys upon request the team carried out two experiments.
In one, the dog was presented with a new object among seven familiar toys and was instructed by their owner to fetch one of the items by name. In the other task each dog played with a novel toy while the toy’s name was repeated by the owner. Both tasks were repeated with two novel toys for each dog, and in each the name of the new toy was uttered just four times.
The team found that Whisky, and to a lesser extent Vicky Nina, generally picked the novel toy among familiar items when its name was said – despite the name of the toy being new to the dog. But neither animal did better than chance when subsequently asked to select one of the two novel toys by name.
In other words, Fugazza explained, the dogs picked the right toy in the initial task by simply excluding the items whose names they already knew.
By contrast, when the name of the novel toy was said during play, the dogs subsequently chose correctly when asked to select one of the two novel toys by name, with Whisky picking the correct toy in 17 out of 24 trials and Vicky Nina in 15 out of 20 trials – although their success waned over time.
Fugazza said the talent for word learning appears to be specific to a few “gifted” canines: 20 other family dogs showed no word learning abilities when tested by the team.
Dr Federico Rossano, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of California San Diego, who was not involved in the research, said it is likely easier to learn new words in a social context, but that does not rule out that Rico and Chaser had the ability to learn new words via exclusion.
Rossano added it would now be useful to explore to whether training would enable the average dog to learn words, or whether the skill is an inherent trait.
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor in cognitive neuroscience at University College London, welcomed the study.
“These findings cast doubt on the assumption that the ability to learn word sounds linked to particular objects is unique to humans,” she said.
But she, too, noted questions remain: “Such as why some dogs are able to learn object names but others aren’t, how long memory for new words lasts, whether word learning in dogs uses the same mechanism as word learning in humans, and whether this ability is unique to certain dog breeds, perhaps breeds that have lived alongside humans for millennia.”