Many dogs know the words for their favorite toys, but they associate these words with objects in a very different way from humans, according to a U.K. new study.
Human toddlers tend to categorize objects by their shapes. When you teach a toddler what a “ball” is, he will also call other similarly-shaped objects “balls,” but he won’t call similarly sized or textured objects “balls.”
Researchers from the University of Lincoln wanted to find out if dogs also associate words with shapes, so they experimented with a border collie named Gable, who had experience learning words.
They found that the dog didn’t use shape to identify an object. For example, if the dog learned a word such as “ball” and was then asked to fetch a ball from an array of unfamiliar objects, he’d choose objects that weren’t necessarily ball-shaped, but were a similar size to the original ball.
Then, after the dog became more familiar with the word and the object, he started to associate the word with similarly textured objects, but shape still didn’t seem to matter.
“Where shape matters for us, size or texture matters more for your dog,” the study authors said in a press release. “This study shows for the first time that there is a qualitative difference in word comprehension in the dog compared to word comprehension in humans.”
The researchers didn’t use typical words such as “ball” to test Gable. Instead they used made-up words for the toys, such as “dax.”
They also made sure all the objects smelled the same so Gable wouldn’t use scent cues.
The team concluded that the way dogs sense and think about objects is very different from the way we do, although more research is needed to confirm the results.
The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE on Nov. 21.
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