The average dog knows 89 words and phrases


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According to several behavioral measures, the mental capacities of the average dog are comparable to that of a human child around the age of 2 years. They are also very similar in their understanding of words, with a new study finding that, on average, dogs respond to 89 words.

“We aimed to develop a comprehensive inventory of owner-reported words to which owners believe their dogs respond in a differential and consistent manner,” wrote Catherine Reeve and Sophie Jacques, the authors of the new study, both researchers at the Dalhousie University, Canada.

Dogs, possibly the first domesticated animal, and humans share a strong bond that dates back thousands of years. Over time, dogs were selected for traits that made them more outgoing, loyal, and cooperative. At first, domesticated dogs were found to be useful for hunting, but nowadays they take on a wide range of specialized roles, such as search and rescue, agriculture, policing, and scent detection (the dogs can detect several types of cancermigraines hypoglycemiaconvulsions Diabetes, and even COVID-19).

Their ability to fulfill these roles depends, in large part, on their responsiveness to human social cues. Often these cues are verbal commands and basic utterances during various contexts (i.e. playtime or walking), but also nonverbal cues such as gestures.

As early as the 1920s, scientists sought to assess the ability of dogs to understand human speech. A 1928 study documented the ability to Companion, a young male German Shepherd, to respond to verbal commands from his owner. Companion could recognize 68 words and phrases, including phrases such as Go outside and wait for me. More recently, a 2004 study found this Rico, a Border Collie, could identify and recover over 200 items, such as different balls and stuffed toys, when the owner spoke each item’s unique name.

These studies show that dogs can react consistently and differently to spoken words and phrases, which is not at all surprising even to new dog owners. But Canadian researchers wanted to study more closely and empirically how well typical dogs respond to words. Companion, Rico, and most of the other dogs involved in similar studies were very well trained, for example.

In order to quantify the number of words a dog could understand, the researchers used virtually the same tool psychologists use to assess infants’ early language comprehension and development, based on a checklist reported by parents called the MacArthur-Bates Communication Development Inventory.

A total of 165 owners of various breeds of dogs were asked about the different words and phrases their pets seemed to understand. Each owner was also asked questions about himself that were relevant to the study, such as dog training experience and composition of household members, as well as their dogs (i.e. say race, age, sex, training).

On average, dog owners identified 89 terms that their pets responded to consistently, half of which were categorized as commands. There were outliers, of course, with a clever dog that would have answered 215 words. The least responsive dog responded with just 15 words.

The most responsive breeds were the Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, German Shepherd, Bichon Frize, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and Chihuahua. Breeds that weren’t as responsive included dogs like the Beagle and Whippet or active guardians like Boxers and Cane Corso.

The most common words dogs responded to were their own names, as well as command-like words like “sit”, “come”, “down”, “stay”, “wait”, “no”, ” OK ‘and’ leave this’. But many dogs can also understand names like “treat,” “breakfast,” “dinner,” “trash,” “poo,” and things to chase, like a “ball” or “squirrel”.

A word was counted as a response if the animal looked up, moaned, ran, wagged its tail, or performed a requested action.

“The current study takes an important first step towards developing an instrument that identifies the words that dogs are most likely to respond to. While there is research on dog responses to words, much of it is of limited scope (e.g., teaching a handful of commands or object words) or sample size (e.g., training a only dog). The current study is consistent with existing research suggesting that dogs may be particularly adept at responding to commands rather than object words, ”the researchers wrote in their study published in the newspaper Applied Sciences of Animal Behavior.

The researchers cautioned, however, that these results do not prove that dogs actually understand the meanings of words. They might respond to various words spoken by humans due to operant or classical conditioning, such as those found in basic dog training (the sounds that make up the word “sit” are possibly associated with a reward). Dogs can also learn to associate certain sounds that form words with events or objects more passively by learning the association between them through repeated pairings, a process scientists call statistical learning.

“With additional research, our tool could become an effective, efficient and economical research tool for mapping some of their skills and perhaps helping to predict each dog’s potential for various occupations early on,” they added.


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