Updating the doggie dictionary: A ruff guide to language

Jan 29, 2022 12:52 PM IST

New research suggests that dogs can respond consistently to an average of 89 words, with service dogs responding to more words than house pets, and some breeds being more “proficient” than others.

He knows who’s a good boy, but how much else can he grasp?

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Fresh research supports what dog lovers have believed for a long time: Dogs may not just “get a sense of what you’re saying”; they could be said to actually know some words.

Sophie Jacques, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University, Canada, and psychologist Catherine Reeve, have published findings in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science that suggest the average dog “understands” about 89 words.

These tend to be action-related phrases rather than nouns. So terms like “sit there” or “go outside” register, but not “kitchen”, “bowl”, “door”.

Jacques first started studying dogs as a means of better understanding child development, in 1993. Knowing that dogs respond to action words whereas babies tend to learn object-related words early on, for instance, offers clues to how and why humans might learn language better than other species; and how these abilities allow us to retain information, organise and plan, Jacques says.

Now, her methods of studying children have also led her to understand dogs better. In 2015, while talking to Reeve, who was then studying olfaction in dogs for a PhD at Dalhousie University, “we started discussing the possibility of cognitive abilities in dogs too”.

Most existing research focuses on the ability of specific dogs to understand words. Such studies tended to be limited to one or two individuals. “We decided to look at language variability across dog breeds and ages as child researchers have done with preverbal babies. Being a child psychologist, I knew that the way to study this in young babies was to give parents checklists of words that are commonly used with infants, and ask parents to check off those words their babies respond to consistently,” Jacques says.

Infants can indicate the words that they understand even before they talk. “So if you ask where their mother is they will look towards her or if you ask them about their doll, they will pick it up,” she says. Developmental psychologists work on this knowledge that parents observe about their children, to predict a child’s later language abilities.

In a similar vein, “we came up with a list of words that we thought dogs might know. We went to pet stores, we went online to find different sports that people play with dogs and the commands that these involve and we also looked for basic commands that are taught in training school,” she says.

The final list of 172 words was distributed among the owners of 165 dogs (94 pure-breeds spread across 50 breeds; and 71 mixed-breed dogs). The owners were asked to identify which words their dogs responded to, consistently, with a specific behaviour.

The results indicate that family pets respond to about 80 words on average, and service dogs to about 120. Service dogs as a rule tended to respond to more words than family dogs, the findings suggest.

The results vary across different breed groups. Herding dogs such as border collies and toy dogs like chihuahuas responded to more words and phrases than types such as terriers, retrievers and mixed-breeds.

While the study vindicates the stand of ardent pet parents, more importantly, it could help predict which dogs might make for better service animals. “Service dogs like a seeing-eye dog for the blind can cost around $30,000 (over 22 lakh) to train in the US. It is very expensive and not all dogs make it through the training. If we have tools that can predict which dog will be able to pick up the training better, it could become a much cheaper process,” Jacques says.

Accordingly, the two researchers are now studying to what extent these early learning abilities can predict the range of things a dog will be able to learn. “We are examining new dog breeds to see if their responses to words predict how they do on behavioural tests,” Jacques says. “We recently had 100 dogs visit our lab and participate in games, to see if the number of words they respond to correlates with, for instance, better success rates in difficult search puzzles.”

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