Dogs Can Understand the Words for Several Objects, Such as Toys and Leashes, Study Finds

Your dog may know the word “ball” is associated with their favorite round squishy toy, according to new research that measured brain waves

Boxer dog with tennis ball in mouth
Dogs may understand more words than humans likely realize, according to new research. PIxabay

It’s no secret that dogs can learn to associate certain words with specific behaviors, such as “sit” and “stay.” Now, new research published last week in the journal Current Biology suggests our four-legged friends can also link words with objects, including “ball” and “Frisbee.”

The findings likely won’t come as a surprise to any pet parent who has ever asked their dog to “Go get your toy!” and, a few seconds later, been presented with a slobbery rope or holey stuffed animal.

But they do offer new insights into the cognitive abilities of man’s best friend—and they suggest that “dogs may understand more than they show,” study lead author Marianna Boros, an ethologist at Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University, says to New Scientist’s James Woodford.

The study also provides the “first neural evidence for object word knowledge in a non-human animal,” the researchers write in the paper.

Researchers asked 18 dog owners to bring their pups into the lab, along with five objects each dog was familiar with—things like leashes, Frisbees, slippers and toys. The scientists hooked the dogs up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine using non-invasive scalp sensors to measure their brain activity.

Border collie hooked up with EEG sensors
Owners brought in five objects their dogs were already familiar with for the experiment. Grzegorz Eliasiewicz

For the experiment, each dog’s owner said aloud the name of an object, then presented the dog with either that named object or a different one. For example, in some scenarios, the human said “ball” and then showed the dog a ball, while in other cases, the human said “ball” and presented the dog with a Frisbee.

When the scientists analyzed the EEG recordings, they saw different patterns of brain activity depending on whether the object matched or didn’t match the spoken word. The differences were greater for words the dogs knew especially well.

The patterns were similar to what has been observed in humans during past studies and suggest that dogs are capable of linking words with specific objects.

“The dog was thinking, ‘I heard the word, now the object needs to come,’” says study co-author Lilla Magyari, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Stavanger in Norway, to the Los Angeles Times’ Karen Kaplan.

But when their owners presented them with a mismatched object instead, their brains had to do a little extra processing to make sense of the difference—and that slight shift showed up on the EEG.

The study involved a variety of dog breeds—such as border collies, vizslas, schnauzers and mixed breeds—but the researchers found no differences in language ability among the different breeds.

Dog behind a small window with a person holding up a ball
Researchers measured the dogs' brain activity using non-invasive EEG sensors. Oszkár Dániel Gáti

The findings build upon a 2011 study describing a border collie named Chaser who learned the names of more than 1,000 objects, after three years of training. But the researchers say their experiments indicate the “capacity is there in all dogs,” Boros tells the Guardian’s Ian Sample.

“It doesn’t matter how many object words a dog understands—known words activate mental representations anyway, suggesting that this ability is generally present in dogs and not just in some exceptional individuals who know the names of many objects,” Boros says in a statement.

Why, then, do some dogs refuse to fetch a ball or stuffed toy at their owner’s command? It likely has more to do with their desire to do so, rather than their ability to understand what’s being asked of them.

“It might be that the dogs don’t really care enough about the game of ‘fetch this particular thing’ to play along with the way we’ve been training and testing them so far,” says Holly Root-Gutteridge, a dog behavior researcher at the University of Lincoln in England who was not involved in the research, to the Guardian. “Your dog may understand what you’re saying but choose not to act.”

Moving forward, researchers are curious to know whether other mammals can link words with objects, or whether this ability is unique to dogs. Future studies might also explore whether dogs understand that words like “ball” can apply to multiple different objects, not just one specific ball they’re familiar with.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.