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Smart dogs learn new words as quickly as toddlers

Samantha Scott and Kamahl Cogdon, October 14, 2021 6:30PM Kids News

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Queensland toddler Madeline Martoo, 16 months, and Boston terrier Stitch both know the name of some of their toys. Picture: Nigel Hallett media_cameraQueensland toddler Madeline Martoo, 16 months, and Boston terrier Stitch both know the name of some of their toys. Picture: Nigel Hallett


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Dogs can learn words as quickly as a one-year-old child, new research has found.

While most dogs can follow commands such as “sit” and can become really excited at the mention of “walkies”, a study has found that some dogs can also learn and remember the name of their toys.

Hungarian researchers spent more than two years looking around the world for dogs that could recognise the names of their various toys.

They recruited six border collies that showed they knew the names of more than 28 toys, with some knowing more than 100.

Funny portrait of cute puppy dog border collie holding toy ball in mouth isolated on white background. Purebred pet dog with tennis ball wants to playing with owner. Pet activity and animals concept media_cameraHungarian researchers recruited six border collies, like this one who loves playing with a ball. Picture: iStock

The dogs – Max from Hungary, Gaia from Brazil, Nalani from the Netherlands, Squall from the US, Whisky from Norway and Rico from Spain – then took part in a series of live-streamed experiments called the Genius Dog Challenge.

“These gifted dogs can learn new names of toys in a remarkable speed,” said study leader Dr Claudia Fugazza, from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.

In the study, published on Royal Society Open Science, the dogs’ owners were asked to teach their pet the name of six new toys in a single week, followed by 12 new toys in a week.

“It turned out that for these talented dogs this was not much of a challenge,” said fellow researcher Dr Shany Dror. “They easily learned between 11 to 12 toys.”

This rate of learning was similar to human infants at the beginning of their vocabulary* spurt*, when they suddenly started stringing words together at about 18 months old, the research found.

The dogs were also able to remember the names of the toys when they were tested one and two months later.

Border Collie running towards camera retrieving frisbee. media_cameraBorder Collies are highly trainable and this one loves playing frisbee. Picture: iStock

But Aussie animal expert Dr Jo Righetti cautioned dog owners not to expect too much from their pooch.

The Pet Problems Solved animal behaviourist* said learning the names of toys might, in this case, be the result of “recruiting highly trainable dogs, like border collies, and also the consistency, patience and understanding of motivated owners”.

“Owners who are consistent in their training and offering motivators* will often be rewarded with a highly trained dog,” she said.

Ms Righetti said most dogs loved to please their owner and were also “trying to please themselves.”

“They will learn quickly when there is a motivator, such as toys or treats, specific to their individual desires,” she said.

“Every dog owner can teach their dog new words and new tricks but don’t be too disappointed if your dog does not learn the dictionary

“Work out what pleases your dog and, using this as a motivator, train your dog in activities that bring you both fun.”

Dog & Child media_cameraMadeline Martoo, 16 months, with her Boston terrier Stitch at their Queensland home. Picture: Nigel Hallett

Danielle Martoo is the mother of 16-month-old Madeline and five-year-old Boston terrier Stitch.

Ms Martoo said her daughter and dog were both able to recall the names of certain toys but it was hard to compare their stages of development.

“Madeline has definitely picked up the names of her toys already and has started to make the connection between Bluey and Koala,” Ms Martoo said.

“Stitch is also very similar – he knows the names of his toys but unfortunately the game of fetch is still a difficult concept.”


  • vocabulary: range of words from a particular language
  • spurt: gush out suddenly
  • behaviourist: someone who studies or is an expert on behaviour
  • motivators: something that encourages a certain behaviour


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  1. What breed are the dogs that took part in the Genius Dog Challenge?
  2. How many toy names did they need to learn in the first week?
  3. How many toy names did they need to learn in the second week?
  4. The dogs’ rate of learning is similar to a child of what age?
  5. What country are the researchers from?


1. Write a Cat’s News Story
Rewrite this story for Cat’s News. Don’t forget a headline. Include an interview with a cat who thinks that cats are smarter than dogs and feels that cats are being ignored by humans.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and Creative Thinking

2. Extension
Story Idea: Whisky, the border collie, is so smart that he can start school. In fact, he is starting at your school, in your class. Write a story about Whisky’s first day at school. The story must be written from Whisky’s point of view. 

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and Creative Thinking

Proper Noun Police
A proper noun is a noun that names a particular person, place or thing. It always has a capital letter.

How many proper nouns can you find within this article? Find them all and sort them into the category of name, place, time (date/month).

Can you find any proper nouns included in your writing? What are they? Can you sort them into their categories?

Extra Reading in animals