Dogs can pick up new words using complex calculations and brain regions - just like human babies

Sunday, 31st October 2021, 8:11 am
Updated Sunday, 31st October 2021, 8:11 am
(Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

A study has found that dogs are able to pick up on individual words in sentences spoken to them using similar computations and brain regions as human babies.

As infants, humans learn to spot new words in a stream of speech first, by using complex calculations that keep track of which syllables appear together and are thus likely to form words.

We do this to spot words in a sentence, before we actually learn what each individual word means.

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By using a combination of brain imaging techniques, experts from Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University have shown that dogs are capable of similar feats.

This is the first time that the capacity to apply so-called statistical learning has been shown to be demonstrated in a non-human mammal.

“Keeping track of patterns is not unique to humans — many animals learn from such regularities in the surrounding world, this is called statistical learning,” said paper author and ethologist Marianna Boros.

“What makes speech special is that its efficient processing requires complex computations. To learn new words from continuous speech, it is not enough to count how often certain syllables occur together.

“It is much more efficient to calculate how probably those syllables occur together.

“This is exactly how humans, even 8-month-old infants, solve the seemingly difficult task of word segmentation — they calculate complex statistics about the probability of one syllable following the other.

“Until now we did not know if any other mammal can also use such complex computations to extract words from speech. We decided to test family dogs’ brain capacities for statistical learning from speech.

“Dogs are the earliest domesticated animal species and probably the one we speak most often to. Still, we know very little about the neural processes underlying their word learning capacities.”

How many words can they learn?

In early October, researchers discovered that “gifted” dogs are able to remember the names of new toys two months later.

Scientists examined the ‎ability of six collies to learn the names of toys, and found that most learned 12 new ‎toy names in one week and remembered them for two months.

In the study, researchers challenged the dogs’ owners to first teach their pets the names of six toys, and then 12 new toys in only one week.

The animals then had to prove they knew the names of more than 28 toys, with some knowing more than 100.

The researchers were amazed that the dogs were easily able to learn the names of between 11 and 12 toys.

One and two months after they had learned the names of the new toys, the four-legged animals were tested, and researchers found they still remembered the names.

The data was collected during the Covid-19 lockdowns and so owners were asked to set up two video cameras at home and connect to a livestream so the dogs’ and their owners’ behaviour could be fully monitored.

A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title, NationalWorld