Many people like to boast of how well their dog understands them. These stories are usually unconfirmed, and might have just a hint of exaggeration or bias, so researchers established the Genius Dog Challenge to scientifically measure if these were shaggy dog stories or tails of truth. The results indicate that some dogs are indeed very smart.
As part of an initial study of canine learning Dr Claudia Fugazza of Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary showed that certain exceptional dogs can learn the name of a new toy after being told it just four times. However, these memories did not last long, so Fugazza and colleagues decided to explore a different sort of challenge: how quickly can dogs learn names that they retain long-term?
In Royal Society Open Science, Fugazza and colleagues reveal top dogs (also known as Gifted Word Learners) can acquire 12 toy names in the space of week, a rate that matches the typical human child prior to the “vocabulary spurt” that starts around 18 months. Moreover, the dogs held onto most toy names for two months without a refresher course.
“We know that dogs can easily learn words that are linked to actions, such as “sit” or “down”. But very few dogs can learn names of objects,” said co-author Shany Dror in a statement. “For more than two years we searched around the world for dogs that had learned the names of their toys, and we managed to find six.”
In order to even make it into the contest owners needed to be able to prove their dogs knew the names of at least 26 objects, something the pups proved to Dror and co-authors by retrieving them at the owner's request.
The dogs' geographical distribution would have made it hard for researchers to test them in person, and COVID-19 settled the issue, so studies were done remotely. The owners of the six border colliers chosen were given a week to teach their dogs the names of six toys, spending between 0.5 and 2.5 hours a day, depending on personal choice.
On the last day the owners were sent instructions to set up cameras in two rooms of their houses simultaneously. Toys were placed in one room and the owners in the other so the dogs couldn't pick up on human clues when toy collecting. The owners relayed instructions from the experimenters as to which toy to collect.
It is possible to imagine the occasional cheater under such conditions, but systematic hints from owners are harder to believe.
The first trial proved too easy – three dogs scored perfectly, and the rest still got a passing grade. The researchers made the experiment harder, doubling the number of toys dogs needed to remember. No dog got 100 percent this time, but the average actually rose.
After a month of non-exposure, the dogs were tested again and five still achieved perfect scores, although for the first time one (Nalani, who is still a good girl) failed. Even after a second month, four dogs managed to score about 50 percent.
“With these talented dogs we have a unique opportunity to study how another species understands the human language and how learning words influences the way we think about the world,” said co-author Professor Adam Miklósi.
If you think your dog is gifted, whatever its breed, the authors would like to hear from you to test whether your belief is justified. For everyone else in need of a smart collie fix, the tests are preserved two at a time on Youtube, and frankly, they are adorable.