Every dog owner believes that their pet is special – but there’s something that marks certain “gifted” pups as above the rest, according to a new study.
Scientists have discovered that a small selection of dogs across the world have a talent for learning the names of their toys.
Known as ‘Gifted Word Learner’ dogs, these skilled animals can recall hundreds of different words and match them to their different playthings.
This ability has been studied before, but previous research has focused on a sample of just one or two dogs.
Researchers from the Family Dog Project at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest wanted to track down more dogs with the talent so they could better understand it, but, due to the rarity of the phenomenon, this proved a difficult task.
This led to the team launching a social media campaign in 2020, which asked owners to get in touch if they believed their dog was a Gifted Word Learner.
“This was a citizen science project,” explained Dr Claudia Fugazza, the study’s leader.
“When a dog owner told us they thought their dog knew toy names, we gave them instructions on how to self-test their dog and asked them to send us the video of the test.”
Researchers would then hold an online meeting with the owner and their dog to test the dog’s vocabulary, and, if they demonstrated knowledge of words, the owner would fill out a questionnaire.
Co-author Dr. Andrea Sommese said: “In the questionnaire, we asked the owner about their dog’s life experience, their own experience in raising and training dogs, and about the process by which the dog came to learn the names of his/her toys.”
After a five-year search, the scientists tracked down 41 dogs from nine different countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, and Norway.
A huge 56 percent of participating dogs were Border Collies, but others belonged to non-working dog breeds – with the study including two Pomeranians, one Pekinese, one Shih Tzu, one Corgi, one Poodle, and a few mixed breeds.
Surprisingly, the study found that there were no correlations between an owner’s level of experience in handling and training, and a dog’s ability to select the correct toy when hearing its name.
The majority of participating owners also reported that they did not intentionally teach their dogs the names of their toys, with the pets instead spontaneously picking up the names during unstructured play sessions.
The dogs also continued to learn more toy names during and after the study, suggesting they can continue to expand their knowledge.
“In our previous studies, we have shown that Gifted Word Learner dogs learn new object names very fast,” said researcher Shany Dror.
“It is not surprising then that when we conducted the tests, the average number of toys known by dogs was 29 – but when we published the results, more than 50 percent had acquired a vocabulary of over 100 toy names.”
Professor Adam Miklósi, study co-author and head of the Ethology Department at ELTE, added: “The rare ability to learn object names is the first documented case of talent in a non-human species.
“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”.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is part of the Genius Dog Challenge research project which aims to understand the unique talent of Gifted Word Learner dogs.
Owners who believe their dogs know multiple toy names are encouraged to get in contact via the research project’s website.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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