Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Researchers On Why Dogs Learn Only A Limited Number Of Words


Most dogs can learn dozens of words - sit, come, lay down. And there's a reason why they might have that skill.

AMRITHA MALLIKARJUN: We sort of evolved with dogs to be sort of socially attuned to one another.

SHAPIRO: Amritha Mallikarjun studies dogs at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia.

MALLIKARJUN: The first wolf that came over and wanted snacks from the early human - you know, from then, we've been sort of reading each other's social cues really, really well. And part of human social behavior is language. So it's important for dogs to sort of pay attention to our linguistic cues as one way of better understanding us.


Some really clever dogs can even learn hundreds of words. Now, my dog Mickey knows at least a dozen, which means I have my work cut out for me, being the tiger mom that I am.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I see you posting those Instagram videos of Mickey balancing bacon on his nose. I'm just glad mine haven't snored while I'm on the air yet.

LILLA MAGYARI: Those dogs who can learn many words are very rare. They are exceptional cases.

CHANG: Lilla Magyari of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences is trying to find out what's holding most dogs back. Her team invited dogs and their owners to their lab, and they taped electrodes to the dogs' heads.

SHAPIRO: Then they played the dogs familiar commands in Hungarian, followed by similar-sounding nonsense words, all while measuring the dogs' brain responses - for example, come in Hungarian...


SHAPIRO: ...Or a made-up variant.


SHAPIRO: In English, that might translate to a dog hearing the words sit and sot.

MAGYARI: We found that dogs in this context don't really differentiate similarly sounding nonsense words from the instruction words.

CHANG: You see, Magyari says that inability to discriminate detail might be one reason most dogs don't develop Shakespearean language skills - not that it's their fault.

MAGYARI: Throughout their life, they are taught only a few instruction words. And those instruction words are clearly different-sounding words most of the time. So actually, they don't need to pay attention to the details.

CHANG: The study was published by the Royal Society.

SHAPIRO: The findings echo past work by Amritha Mallikarjun of Penn. She tested whether dogs could hear the difference between their names and a similar rhyming name.

MALLIKARJUN: Riley versus Wiley, Banjo versus Tanjo.

CHANG: She found that though dogs can tell vowels apart, they have a much harder time with consonants, much like human infants. So her advice to dog owners...

MALLIKARJUN: If you have two dogs at home and you're trying to name them, you should not give them names that rhyme.

SHAPIRO: Hear that, Ailsa? If you get a second dog, don't name him Ricky.

CHANG: Well, that's OK 'cause too bad for Mickey, I think I'm a one-dog mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANTHURR'S "WOOF, PT. 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.