Dogs That Recognize Words

by Sandy Vigil
    Is your dog smarter than a fifth grader?

    Is your dog smarter than a fifth grader?

    leungchopan/iStock/Getty Images

    All dogs have the ability to recognize words. After all, they know their own name. The average dog has a vocabulary of around 165 words and can count to five. Some breeds are better at it than others. Psychologists took tests designed to gauge how many words human children know and adapted them for dogs. In their testing they discovered that most dogs have the vocabulary of a 2-year-old toddler.

    A male border collie in Germany named Rico held the world record for the largest known canine vocabulary. His vocabulary was well over 200 words in 2004. In 2011, a female border collie named Chaser surprised the science community with her 1,022-word vocabulary. Chaser’s vocabulary didn’t seem to be able to reach a maximum. Her 82-year-old owner said he couldn’t keep up with her four to five hour a day demand for more vocabulary training.

    One method researchers used with Rico is called fast mapping. The researchers placed a new toy that Rico didn’t have a name for among other toys that he did know. His trainer gave Rico a fetch command with the name of the unfamiliar toy. Through a process of elimination, Rico was able to figure out that the unfamiliar word and unfamiliar toy matched and retrieved the proper toy. Chaser’s vocabulary was tested hundreds of times using not only proper nouns, but also verbs. She was able to tell the difference between a noun and the command to retrieve the object.

    According to WebMD, Dr. Stanley Coren, author of best seller “The Intelligence of Dogs,” assessed a variety of dog breeds to determine which were the most intelligent by measuring their ability to be trained. He used top dog obedience judges to measure how many breeds could understand a command in less than five repetitions and obeyed the command at least 95 percent of the time. Dogs who are bred to herd, retrieve and hunt have the largest vocabularies. The top 10 breeds based on his work are: border collie, poodle, German shepherd, golden retriever, Doberman pinscher, Shetland sheepdog, Labrador retriever, papillon, rottweiler and Australian cattle dog.

    One of the first things you have to do is to understand what natural abilities your dog has. Dogs who were bred to work with humans tend to like to please and love to work. The next important factor is to know what motivates your dog. Some dogs respond best to food rewards, while others would rather play with a ball as a treat. Dogs will understand a concrete word like “ball” because they can associate an object with it. They have trouble with abstract words like “love” because it is not something they can see. Present a toy to your dog while telling him what the name of the toy is. For example, if your dog has a lot of balls, expand on the type or color of the ball. Don’t teach more than two words per day and review the ones she has learned daily to reinforce her understanding. When she has a good grasp of toy names, move on to action verbs like “fetch.” Try to catch her naturally doing the action and give it a name. If she picks up the blue ball and brings it you wanting to play, praise her and give her the command “fetch the blue ball.” With consistency, she will catch on quickly.

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    About the Author

    Based in Las Vegas, Sandy Vigil has been a writer and educator since 1980. She taught high school and middle school English and drama for 11 years. Vigil holds a Master of Science in teaching from Nova Southeastern University and a Bachelor of Arts in secondary English education from the University of Central Oklahoma.

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