Dogs learn language differently from humans

Posted by Flora Malein

While many dog-owners may marvel at their pet’s human-like ability to understand new words; research by scientists at the University of Lincoln, UK, suggests that dogs learn words in a fundamentally different way to us. 

Dogs have long been thought to learn new words in a similar way to humans; using an object’s shape such as ‘round’ for a ball, to associate words with objects. The importance of shape in human  object-recognition is known as ‘shape-bias’.
 
However, when dogs are learning the name of a new object, researchers found that they associate the word to the object based first on its size and secondly on its texture, rather than on its shape.
 
"A number of recent studies have suggested that the domestic dog's word comprehension is human-like. Arguments have been made to refute this claim but until now there has been no clear empirical evidence to resolve the debate," says Dr Emilie van der Zee, a psychologist and co-author of the paper published in the journal PLOS ONE
 
"Our findings bring a fundamental new insight into this discussion and add to our understanding of the cognitive equipment necessary for true human word learning."
 
The researchers worked with a five-year old border collie called Gable, using a series of challenges to test his word comprehension abilities. New objects and new object names were introduced by holding the object in view and sounding out the object name several times. Gable was then given the opportunity to play with the object while the word was repeated again. 
 
Researchers tested  his knowledge of the new word  by asking him to retrieve the object on its own, followed by picking it out of a line-up of familiar toys. Gable appeared to make distinctions based first on the object’s size, then on texture, after he had longer to become familiar with the new object. The shape of the new toy appeared to have no influence on his language-association.
 
The study sheds further light on language abilities in other species and how they communicate with humans. The researchers believe that how word-knowledge is developed in dogs and how it works in reference to objects is fundamentally different to these processes in humans. The idea that dogs learn words in a very different way to us could advance our understanding of how languages first developed in humans.