Dogs can associate words with objects, study finds

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Dogs are able to understand that some words refer to objects in a way that is similar to humans, a small study of canine brain waves has found, offering insight into the way the minds of man's best friends work.

That our four-legged companions are able to recognise words that prompt actions will come as no surprise to dog owners who tell their pets to "sit" or "fetch".

However, the study, which analysed brain activity in 18 dogs, provided evidence that they can activate a memory of an object when they hear its name. The study was carried out at the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest and published in the journal Current Biology.

"There has been a long debate on a non-human animal's ability to understand words referentially," said Marianna Boros who co-authored the study.

"While there have been behavioural reports, these were always exceptional cases. Our study is the first where we claim that this is a species-wide capacity."

During the study, dog owners said words for objects their pets knew. Then in some cases they would present the dog with an object that matched the word, while in other cases the object didn't match.

The results found that the patterns in the dogs' brains when the words matched the objects were different compared to when they didn't. This is similar to what can be observed in humans.

"Dogs can understand that words stand for things... So they activate mental representations and they link the meaning of the word to a mental representation and not just the context," said Boros.

The researchers plan to examine if this ability to understand referential language is specific to dogs or might be present in other mammals as well.

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