Barking mad: Dogs may be smarter than you think

Man’s best friends are capable of learning simple commands, some breeds with greater ease than others, and can quickly learn where treats are stored in a house or even the way home from regular walking routes. Their intelligence has allowed for the existence of guide and service dogs, and even to help in therapy. They have the ability to deceive other dogs and humans alike, and some can even count up to 5 and solve simple arithmetic. These abilities place dogs at a similar mental capacity as a 2-year-old child. 

However, a question which has puzzled animal behaviour researchers is why dogs cannot seem to learn more than around 165 different words – for comparison the average human knows 20,000 to 35,000. Only a select few dogs, in particular one more well studied Border Collie called Rico, are able to achieve “fast track learning” which is the way humans learn words. This enables these dogs to distinguish and respond to between 200 and 250 words. Still, this is still significantly less than humans, who by the age of 2, are able to add between 10 and 20 words to their vocabulary each week. 

Chaser the Border Collie: The Smartest Dog in the World? |
Meet Rico: the Border Collie who knows up to 250 words. Image: Telegraph.

A recent study in Hungary tested the ability of 44 different dogs to distinguish words they knew, for example “sit” from similar sounding words such as “sip and “set, and non-similar sounding nonsense words. The dogs could not distinguish between instruction words, and words which differed from them by only one sound, but could readily distinguish between the nonsense words and words they did know. This is similar to the processing skills of a 1 year-old human, who would tend to group similar sounding words into instructional based categories rather than focus on small changes between words. However, humans go on to expand their vocabulary after this stage while dogs do not. The reasoning for this is still uncertain as the researchers seem sure that it is not for lack of ability, and certainly some dogs have shown a high ability to expand and advance their vocabulary. 

By Indi Lacey

Header image: Pixabay