How Many Words Does Your Dog Know?

I was “wowed” when I saw some years ago a demonstration of a Border Collie named Rico who recognized the names of over 200 toys. In one experiment the owner was in a room, and the objects in another, thus preventing the owner from giving other visual cues to the dog. He correctly retrieved an amazing 37 out of 40 toys. But even more impressive was an experiment where one toy that Rico had never seen was added to a group of seven toys that he already knew by name. The owner then asked Rico to get the new toy, using a name that Rico had never heard before. In 70% of the tests he retrieved the correct, previously unfamiliar object.

I hope Rico doesn’t take this too hard, but there is a new kid on the block and her name is Chaser. Yes, she too is a Border Collie. Any surprises there? Not really. But Chaser has a larger vocabulary. A much larger vocabulary of 1,022.  Chaser, like Rico,  also demonstrated the ability to infer the name of a new object when in a group of objects that she already had names for. Pretty impressive. But Chaser can even demonstrate an ability to recognize and act on different combinations of verbs and nouns.  In other words, she can be asked to touch , paw or take a particular toy and do so reliably.

The research, which was done by Alliston Reid and J. W. Piley at  Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina, involved intensive training over three years. 

I wonder what the average number of words is that a dog understands? As I think about it, it seems that my dogs probably have a pretty tiny vocabulary, if by that we are talking about words alone. Most of the words they “know” are accompanied with some sort of gesture so it would be difficult to say how many they would actually respond to if I didn’t use body language as well.  On the other hand, they are much better at understanding hand gestures and signals, and body language, and don’t necessarily need the verbal cue if given a hand signal.  I have never seen any research that attempted to measure the number of hand signals a dog could be taught if they were taught systematically in the same way that Chaser was.

I hope Rico isn’t reading this as I wouldn’t want to suggest that knowing 200 toys by name is too shabby! But 1,022 words? Wow!

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