‘Gifted’ Dogs Are a Rare Phenomenon. Scientists Want to Know Their Secret. : ScienceAlert

It’s not common, but some dogs are able to learn the names of dozens of different objects (if not more). Not much is known about why these pooches are so gifted – but a new study sheds some light on what sets them apart.

Researchers from Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Hungary found 41 dogs across nine different countries that could perform better than chance on a vocabulary assessment test, and asked their owners to fill out questionnaires about the upbringing and behavior of their canine pals.

Perhaps the most surprising finding from the surveys was something that these Gifted Word Learner (GWL) dogs didn’t have in common: only a few had been specifically trained to recognize the names of their toys, and most just seemed to pick up the names naturally.

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“Surprisingly, most owners reported that they did not intentionally teach their dogs toy names, but rather that the dogs just seemed to spontaneously pick up the toy names during unstructured play sessions,” says ethologist Shany Dror from ELTE.

The vast majority of the dog owners had no professional background in dog training, and varied in their experience of handling and training dogs. In fact, there was a lot of variation in every aspect of the lives of the pooches.

After putting a call out on social media for owners of extraordinarily smart pooches to get in touch, the researchers were inundated with hundreds of responses.

Of the 35 owners who completed an online application, 27 were dog breeders. Also, 27 of the canines lived in one-dog households, and 20 of them participated in leisure training activities (such as obedience training, scent detection, or dog shows).

Dog with toys
Basket, one of the dogs involved in the study, can identify more than 50 toys by name. (Elle Baumgartel)

Most of the dog owners (25) had owned dogs before, and three of these individuals said that one of their previous dogs knew the names of more than three toys. In terms of play, 28 owners said that they play with their dogs and the named toys every day.

While a small variety of breeds were represented, there was a clear predominance of one breed in particular, with 23 being border collies and another four being border collie crosses.

“Because GWL dogs are so rare, until now there were only anecdotes about their background,” says ethologist Adam Miklósi from ELTE. “The rare ability to learn object names is the first documented case of talent in a non-human species.”

Previous research into GWL dogs from the same team found that playfulness was a common trait in these pooches, hinting that the personality of the dog may have something to do with being able to recognize and remember toy names.

The important work of the academics behind this study goes on, as part of the Genius Dog Challenge – and if you have a very smart dog of your own, the researchers would be glad to hear from you as well.

“The relatively large sample of dogs documented in this study, helps us to identify the common characteristics that are shared among these dogs, and brings us one step closer in the quest of understanding their unique ability,” says Miklósi.

The research has been published in Scientific Reports.