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Dogs Learn to Associate Words with Objects Differently Than Humans Do

Your dog knows the names of his favorite toys and various agility obstacles. But just how does he associate the names with these items? By Claudia Bensimoun


Although many of us wonder at the way our dogs know which objects to fetch on command, and believe this is evidence that our dogs understand these words in a way similar to our understanding of words, this is not the case. New research demonstrates that our canine companions relate words to objects in a very different way.

One of the more interesting 2012 studies was that from Dr. Emile van der Zee, from the University of Lincoln's School of Psychology, in the United Kingdom. In this latest research, van der Zee and colleagues worked with Gable, a Border Collie. Earlier research with dogs and children has demonstrated that dogs too can learn to associate words with categories of objects, like a toy. The researchers wanted to find out if a dog's learning process was similar to that of humans. Prior to his death in 2008, Rico, another Border Collie, was found to have understood more than 200 basic words. There have been many other reports of Border Collies having extensive vocabulary.

In his research, van der Zee compared previous studies from children between the ages of two to three. Toddlers of this age typically learn how to associate words with the shapes of objects. They learn the name of one object, like a ball, and then they identify other objects with similar shapes, sizes, and textures such as "a ball," rather than only items of the same size and texture. But dogs that are learning to associate words with objects form these associations in different ways than humans do. What's not so clear is whether our canine companions understand words in the same way that we all do. "A number of recent studies have suggested that the domestic dogs' 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. 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," says Van der Zee (via Science Daily).

Do Dogs Have a Shape Bias?

Dr. van der Zee and his colleagues worked on four different challenges so as to determine the extent and nature of Gable's word comprehension. In this study, Gable was presented with a selection of 10 different objects, which were all familiar to him. These objects were placed in an enclosure that Gable could not see and the researchers would then give Gable a verbal command to fetch a particular object out of the ten. The results demonstrated that Gable could easily distinguish between the objects he knew well. But the findings indicate that, when the researchers introduced new words and new objects with different sizes, shapes, and textures, Gable demonstrated the absence of shape bias in all of his choices. Gable made distinctions by object size and then texture. Interestingly enough, object shape did not influence his choices.

Dr. van der Zee and colleagues also created the word "dax." After teaching Gable the meaning of the word (the name of an object), Gable then ignored the shape of a dax and focused on the size of the dax instead. Researchers did this by creating many objects of various sizes and textures and making up words like dax to describe these objects. Gable generalized the word based on the object size.

The researchers presented Gable with numerous choices so as to test whether "shape bias" is present in dogs. Van der Zee found that after a short training period, Gable had learned to associate the name of an object with its size, and identified other objects of similar size by the same name. Gable had also learned to associate a word with other objects of similar textures, yet not to objects of similar shape after a longer period of exposure to both a name and an object.

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