Dogs learn words like children do: the experiment

An experiment shows that dogs process our language in a much more complex way than we thought: they use the same technique as children

We still don't know much about how animals understand the world: it's a recent finding that the intelligence of corvids is comparable to the problem solving skills of a fourth grader, while we're discovering the fine social intelligence of octopuses and dolphins.

A new study from Eötvös Loránd University, in Hungary, sheds light on the unexpected linguistic intelligence of dogs, which are far closer to us than octopuses and other animals known for a certain super-intelligence.

Language Learning

When an infant human begins attempting to unravel the rebus of complex language used by adults, it begins by distinguishing particular syllables within speech.

The baby, around eight months of age, identifies and traces the recurring patterns of syllables that are able to form words, learning to distinguish the sound of words before even knowing their meaning.

Apparently, the same thing dogs do. As Mariana Boros, one of the study's authors, says, "dogs can do the exact same processing that young children do to distinguish words in speech."

This is the first time such behavior has been detected in a mammal other than a human: the ability to identify words is far from elementary, as it involves a complex statistical calculation that can define the probability with which syllables appear together to form linguistic expressions.

It's called "statistical learning": as Mariana Boros explains, "keeping track of the patterns that make up the world is not the prerogative of humans - many animals use such regularities to learn."

The experiment: complete words and syllables

We know that dogs are able to understand commands, more or less simple, and distinguish some words that we use recurrently addressing them. What we didn't know, is that dogs use exactly the same learning strategy that we use when, in diapers, we try to learn to communicate with others of our species.

The research used two instrumental tests, the EEG and the MRI. The tests were performed on dogs from the Canine Unit, who were specially trained to remain still for a few minutes while the tests were conducted, so that no restraints were needed during the experiment.

The dogs were left with their owners, and the stimuli recorded by the brain recorded by typical electrodes used for EEG examinations. The dogs were first subjected to a sequence of made-up words and loose syllables, and then to the recording of individual nonexistent words accompanied by syllables that were not part of them.

The brain activity showed that the dogs are able to distinguish between the most frequent words and the rarer ones, and above all they can understand that there is a difference between the complete word and the syllables of the same word, even if they are equally frequent within the speech.

To understand where and how this learning process takes place, the dogs were subjected to a non-invasive MRI. The examination showed that while the basal ganglia respond to the stimulus of random syllables, most of the brain activity in the face of complete words is concentrated in the auditory cortex, an extremely more specialized region.

This is the very same region that is activated in humans for language comprehension tasks: "It's interesting to see that in dogs, the auditory cortex also plays a key role in word segmentation," Boros says.

The results of the experiment speak for themselves: dogs are able to distinguish individual words within sentences that we address to them, and they do so using the same complex computational technique as humans.