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Dogs learn words differently based on breed

Remember Chaser the border collie? We featured her amazing scientific feat long ago on our page, and today we are sharing the story of Bailey, the Yorkshire Terrier who learned roughly 120 words throughout the course of her life. We don’t have a picture of her, so included is a photo of Frank (@waterymountainessentials on Instagram), a morkie involved in a word-learning study with George Mason University. He is following in Bailey’s footsteps!

Throughout the course of Bailey the yorkie’s life, her owner taught her the names of many words through play. She would tell her the name of a new toy, then give her the opportunity to fetch it by name. Over the course of 12-years, Bailey had the opportunity to play with and learn the names of almost 120 words! The University of Memphis tested Bailey’s ability and found that she was highly accurate – only incorrectly fetching 5 of 97 toys!

While Bailey did learn a large vocabulary over the course of her life, she never demonstrated the ability to fast-map, or learn language based on exclusionary logic. For example, if three toys were presented and she knew the names two of them, she’d know the third based on exclusion even though she’d never heard the name before. Bailey had to learn words based on repeated pairings and rewards rather than through fast-mapping. However, Chaser, and another border collie studied named Rico, were both able to use fast-mapping to learn new words. Bailey showed us that it’s not just border collies who can learn lots of words, but she also showed us an important difference in the way the learning happens across breeds. More research must be done to better understand how dogs of all breeds understand human language.

Do you have a dog that knows lots of words? If you do – email us! (bartz@gmu.edu) We would love to meet them!

Griebel, U. & Oller, D. K. (2012). Vocabulary Learning in a Yorkshire Terrier: Slow Mapping of Spoken Words. PLoS ONE, 7:2, e30182. Retrieved from www.plosone.org