An Exploration of Object-Word Acquisition in Canis familiaris



Artz, Brianna L

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Language-like abilities are present across many classes of animals. Various non-human primates, the gray parrot, and dolphins have all demonstrated the ability to comprehend, and in some cases produce, spoken words, symbols or gestures representing objects or other labels (Pepperberg, 2017). It was not until recently that dogs were discovered to have the ability to understand object-word pairings through receptive language. Two border collies and a Yorkshire terrier were found to have the ability to acquire vocabularies of human words (Kaminki, Call & Fischer, 2004; Greibel & Oller, 2017; Pilley & Reid, 2011). Thus far, these two breeds are the only to be studied for their ability to understand human language. The present study seeks to better understand if the ability to understand object-word associations is present in all dogs, or if this ability might be more specific to certain breeds of dog or to certain individuals. Due to purpose-breeding, certain breeds of dog may have acquired or lost this ability over time. Seven dogs (3 beagles, 2 great Pyrenees, and 2 mixed breeds) were trained using operant and classical conditioning to respond correctly when given the command “Find (object name)” over many training sessions. All dogs learned 25 words, but the number of sessions required before learning each to varied across dog and breed. The beagles and great Pyrenees had difficulty learning these associations at an early age, but the youngest dog (morkie, 12-weeks) never had any difficulties related to age. The oldest dog (lab/pit mix, 9 years) also had no apparent age-related difficulties. No dog in the present study learned these associations through fast-mapping like previously studied border collies. The results indicate that innate, purpose-bred behavioral tendencies may influence early object-word learning in dogs, and that the process or word learning in dogs may differ by breed. Future research on canine language learning should rely on citizen science.



Dog, Language, Operant conditioning, Receptive language, Language learning