Your dog might follow commands such as “sit”, or become uncontrollably excited at the mention of the word “walkies”, but when it comes to remembering the names of toys and other everyday items, most seem pretty absent-minded.
Now a study of six “genius dogs” has advanced our understanding of dogs’ memories, suggesting some of them possess a remarkable grasp of the human language.
Hungarian researchers spent more than two years scouring the globe for dogs who could recognise the names of their various toys. Although most can learn commands to some degree, learning the names of items appears to be a very different task, with most dogs unable to master this skill.
Max (Hungary), Gaia (Brazil), Nalani (Netherlands), Squall (US), Whisky (Norway), and Rico (Spain) made the cut after proving they knew the names of more than 28 toys, with some knowing more than 100. They were then enlisted to take part in a series of livestreamed experiments known as the Genius Dog Challenge.
“These gifted dogs can learn new names of toys in a remarkable speed,” said Dr Claudia Fugazza at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, who led the research team. “In our previous study we found that they could learn a new toy name after hearing it only four times. But, with such short exposure, they did not form a long-term memory of it.”
To further push the dogs’ limits, their owners were tasked with teaching them the names of six, and then 12 new toys in a single week.
“It turned out that, for these talented dogs, this was not much of a challenge. They easily learned between 11 to 12 toys,” said Dr Shany Dror from the same university. This rate of learning is comparable with that of human infants at the beginning of their vocabulary spurt, when they suddenly start stringing words together at about 18 months old.
The dogs could also remember the names of the toys when they were tested one and two months later. The research was published in Royal Society Open Science.
All of the dogs taking part were border collies – herding dogs originally bred to work sheep. Although this makes many of them very responsive to the behaviour of their owners, only a small proportion of the breed are able to memorise the names of their toys.
Neither is this talent unique to border collies. “Thanks to the Genius Dog Challenge we have managed until now to find also dogs from other breeds including a German shepherd, a pekingese, a mini Australian shepherd and a few dogs of mixed breeds,” Dror said. Separate research has also suggested some yorkshire terriers may be able to do it.
By studying such animals, the researchers hope to better understand the relationship between animals and their owners.
“Dogs are good models for studying human behaviour as they evolved and develop in the human environment,” said one of the study’s co-authors, Prof Ádám Miklósi at Eötvös Loránd University. “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.”
Although the challenge has finished, Fugazza’s team is keen to recruit exceptional pooches for further experiments. Owners who believe their dogs know multiple toy names can register them via the challenge website.