Is Your Dog Gifted?

Genius dogs can learn 12 toy names a week, and remember them up to two months.

Max and his toys
Max, from Budapest, and his toys.

Cooper Photo

Of course your dog is smart. But is your canine best friend a genius?

A new study finds that there are some dogs that are “gifted word learners.” They can learn the names of a dozen toys in a week and remember them months later. This cognitive ability and long-term memory fascinates researchers and is very unusual.

“Dogs with a vocabulary of object names are rare and are considered uniquely gifted,” the researchers write, kicking off their findings in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers searched around the world for two years, looking for dogs that had the ability to quickly memorize the names of their toys.

“We found that while most dogs can easily learn to associate words with actions such as ‘sit’ or ‘down,’ only very few dogs are able to learn the names of objects,” lead researcher Shany Dror, from the Family Dog Project, Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, tells Treehugger

In order to find more of these gifted dogs, researchers created the Genius Dog Challenge, both a research project and social media campaign, in order to raise public awareness and find more brilliant pets.

They found six genius border collies that all lived in different countries. Each had learned the names of toys not through intense training, but just while playing with their owners.

Learning Toy Names

For the challenge, each of the owners received two boxes of toys. There were six toys in the first box, and the owners were asked to teach their dogs the names of the toys in one week. All dogs received the same toys and the names were chosen randomly from suggestions on social media. None of the names sounded similar to any of the dogs’ other toys. On the seventh day, Dror tested the dogs’ knowledge of the toy names on a live broadcast.

The owner was in one room and a pile of toys was in the other. Dogs were asked by the owner to retrieve a specific toy by name. The owner was in a separate room to control for what is known as the “clever Hans effect,” where the owner inadvertently gives clues as to the right choice.

(Hans was a horse who lived in the early 1900s in Berlin who was known for tapping numbers or letters with his hoof to answer questions. But it turns out he was reading cues in the faces of the people questioning him.)

Then dog owners did the same with the second box. This time, there were a dozen toys and the owners again had a week to teach their dogs the names of these toys and they were tested on a live broadcast. Two dogs retrieved 10 toys, one got 11, and the remaining three retrieved all 12. (Watch Max and Gaia compete in the video above.)

But then researchers wanted to see if dogs were retaining their word knowledge. This time, they stored the toys away so the dogs couldn’t get to them. After one month, the test was repeated with six toys. Five of the dogs successfully retrieved all six toys and one retrieved only three toys.

Then the remaining six toys were tested after two months. Three dogs retrieved all six toys, one retrieved five, and the remaining dogs did not retrieve above what is considered chance.

“Many students can testify to the fact that information that is quickly acquired is often quickly forgotten. This is especially true when acquiring a large amount of information (like the night before an exam),” Dror says. “Therefore, we wanted to see if dogs not only learned the new names of the toys but also were able to form a long-term memory.”

Does Breed Play a Part?

Gaia and her toys
Gaia and her toys in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Genius Dog Challenge

Although most dogs can learn something, very few dogs can learn like this.

“We do not know exactly how common this phenomenon is or what is the exact percentage, but we know that it is very low,” Dror says.

She cites a recent study where they compared the performance of these six gifted dogs with the performance of 36 typical family dogs that were trained for three months to learn the name of just two toys. Only one dog, named Olivia, managed to learn the names of the two toys along with the gifted dogs, while the other family dogs didn’t learn the toy names.

“So, it appears that only very few dogs have the ability to learn object names and that the gifted dogs that possess this ability, can do so very rapidly. In a previous study, we found that these gifted dogs are able to learn a name for a new object after hearing it only 4 times,” Dror says.

“But the dogs in that experiment were exposed only to two toys at a time and did not maintain a long-term memory of the object names. In the current study not only were the dogs able to learn a large number of new names in a short period of time but they also managed to construct a long-term memory of these newly learned object names.”

Most of the dogs that have this genius ability are border collies, Dror says, as are all six dogs that competed in the challenge.

“However, even among this breed, it is a rare phenomenon, and most of the border collies that we have tested do not show the ability to learn object names. Furthermore, this is not a uniquely border collie trait,” she says.

Because the challenge has received so much attention, they’ve recruited about 15 more dogs. Although the majority are border collies, there are a few other breeds including a German shepherd, Pekingese, a mini Australian shepherd, and a few mixed breeds.

“There are also already published reports of dogs of other breeds showing this capacity,” Dror says.

The Role of Training

Whisky and toys
Whisky was the first dog to be part of the study.

Helge O. Savela

All these “gifted word learner” canines don’t just pick up the names because of training. Researchers don’t know yet why some dogs have the ability to easily learn the names of objects.

“Training alone does not appear to have an effect on the ability of typical family dogs to learn object names,” Dror says. “In fact, the six gifted dogs tested in the current study were not officially trained to learn the names of objects. Their owners simply played with them with the toys and noticed after a while that the dogs know the names of the toys.” 

They also aren’t sure yet why most dogs can easily learn to associate words with actions (“go for a walk?”) but aren’t able to make the connection with objects.

“Interestingly, some studies suggest that for infants it is the other way around and that they find it harder to learn verbs over nouns,” Dror says.

“These gifted dogs present a unique talent in a way that might be similar to the expression of talent in humans. Uniquely talented people, such as Albert Einstein and Mozart, have shaped our history and yet we know very little about the circumstances under which their talent has emerged. We hope that these gifted dogs can help us understand the conditions that enable the emergence of exceptional performance.”

But if your personal pup is no Einstein or Mozart, don’t be dismayed.

“There is a famous saying that animals will be as smart as allowed to be. The more we stimulate and challenge our furry friends, the better we will be able to show their true abilities,” Dror says. “I encourage people to train with their dogs, not because they want to achieve a certain goal but because the training by itself, is the goal.”

View Article Sources
  1. Dror, Shany, et al. "Acquisition and Long-Term Memory of Object Names in a Sample of Gifted Word Learner Dogs." Royal Society Open Science, vol. 8, no. 10, 2021, doi:10.1098/rsos.210976

  2. lead researcher Shany Dror, from the Family Dog Project, Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest

  3. Samhita, Laasya, and Hans J Gross. "The “Clever Hans Phenomenon” Revisited." Communicative & Integrative Biology, vol. 6, no. 6, 2013, p. e27122., doi:10.4161/cib.27122

  4. Fugazza, Claudia, et al. "Rapid Learning of Object Names in Dogs." Scientific Reports, vol. 11, no. 1, 2021, doi:10.1038/s41598-021-81699-2