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U of M Research Shows Lapdog Acquires Large Vocabulary

For release: February 17, 2012
For press information, contact Curt Guenther, 901/678-2843

A research paper by members of the faculty of the University of Memphis College of Communication Science and Disorders was published today in the leading science journal PLoS ONE.  The paper follows up on two previously published papers about dogs learning words. Both previous publications received major worldwide publicity. 

The first publication, in Science in 2004, was from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and featured a border collie, Rico, with a 200-word receptive vocabulary.  The second, by Dr. John Pilley (who, coincidentally, received his Ph.D. degree from the U of M’s Department of Psychology) was published in 2010 and featured his dog Chaser, also a border collie.  Pilley said that with extensive training, Chaser learned 1,000 words.

Border collies are presumed to be smart dogs, and according to the earlier studies, Rico and Chaser learned to retrieve objects, e.g., stuffed animals, on voice command, retrieving the objects almost without error.  The Science article claimed that Rico could learn words on a single presentation (fast-mapping).

Bailey with owner Noreen

In the new PLoS ONE paper, the University of Memphis researchers show that a lapdog named Bailey (in this case a Yorkshire terrier, not normally a breed that is presumed to be as smart a dog as a border collie) could also learn a large vocabulary.  Most notably, the Memphis team’s research shows that the original claim in Science about one-trial learning in a border collie was not correct.  That data had been overinterpreted.  When the U of M team extended the testing originally conducted for the Science paper, they determined that Rico could have succeeded in the “learning” task without learning the newly presented words at all.  He could merely have learned to pick up the “new” item, or the “new item that had been seen and named recently for the first time.”

There is tremendous pressure on humans as they grow and develop to be able to learn words quickly; they would be at a major competitive disadvantage if they could not do it. But no other animal possesses vocal language the way humans do.  Thus it is not surprising that even our most trusted non-human companions, dogs, are required to go through extensive training to learn words at all; and so far, only a handful have been shown to be able to learn a large verbal vocabulary. 

The first author of the new paper is Dr. Ulrike Griebel (Ph.D. from the University of Vienna, Austria) who holds faculty appointments at the University of Memphis College of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the Institute for Intelligent Systems.  The second author is Dr. Kimbrough Oller, professor and holder of the Plough Chair of Excellence in the same U of M College.

The article can be found at this URL:

More information is available from Dr. Griebel at 901-409-0403.

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