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What the Dog’s World Says About Us

What the Dog’s World Says About Us

How do dogs learn human language?

Did you know dogs can learn up to a thousand words? It sometimes makes them seem just as smart as two or three year old humans. But there is actually a big difference between how dogs and human toddlers develop their vocabulary, a new study shows. The findings shed light on our own evolution.

Gable, a five year old Border collie, was the key figure in this study. Researchers of the University of Lincoln taught him some new made-up words, like dax or gnark, for variously shaped, sized or textured objects. Once Gable memorized these words they introduced him to other objects with the same shape, texture or size to see if he associated them with the same name.

We know that human toddlers point and call newly learned words to objects that have the same shape. But that’s not what Gable did. He appeared to associate dax and gnark only with the size of the objects. Later on in the study he also let texture play a role in discriminating between objects, but he remained indifferent to their shape.

The findings shed light on the origins of our own language. It appears that we developed a distinct way of discriminating between objects, compared to other mammals. This paved the way for language, which in turn enabled us to build the modern society we live in today. So we can consider ourselves very lucky that we found out that it’s just not only size that matters.

Source: The New York Times
Van der Zee, E, Zulch, H, & Mills, D (2012). Word Generalization by a Dog (Canis familiaris): Is Shape Important? PLoS One : 10.1371/journal.pone.0049382

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