Unlocking the Mystery of Exceptional Canines: Scientists Investigate Gifted Dogs

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While it’s not an everyday occurrence, certain dogs exhibit an extraordinary ability to learn the names of numerous objects, and a recent study aims to unravel the mystery behind their exceptional skills.

Conducted by researchers from Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Hungary, the study identified 41 dogs from nine different countries that surpassed chance performance on a vocabulary assessment test. The owners of these remarkable dogs were then invited to provide insights into the upbringing and behavior of their cherished canine companions through questionnaires.

One of the most intriguing revelations from the surveys was the lack of a common factor among these Gifted Word Learner (GWL) dogs: only a few had undergone specific training to recognize the names of their toys, with most seemingly acquiring this skill naturally.

Contrary to expectations, a notable number of dog owners revealed that they didn’t intentionally teach their dogs toy names; rather, these intelligent canines seemed to effortlessly grasp toy names during spontaneous play sessions, according to ethologist Shany Dror from ELTE, as reported.

Interestingly, the dog owners participating in the study displayed a diverse range of backgrounds, with the majority lacking professional experience in dog training. The variations extended to all aspects of the dogs’ lives.

Responding to a social media call for owners of exceptionally intelligent dogs, the researchers received an overwhelming response. Out of the 35 owners who completed an online application, 27 were dog breeders. Additionally, 27 of the canines resided in single-dog households, and 20 participated in various leisure training activities, including obedience training, scent detection, and dog shows.

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

Among the dog owners involved in the study, 25 had previous experience owning dogs, and three of them shared that one of their past dogs knew the names of more than three toys. In terms of play, 28 owners expressed that they engage in daily play sessions with their dogs and the named toys.

While the represented breeds varied, one particular breed, the border collie, stood out prominently, with 23 of the dogs belonging to this breed and an additional four being border collie crosses.

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

Previous research by the same team revealed that playfulness was a common trait among GWL dogs, suggesting a potential connection between the dog’s personality and the ability to recognize and remember toy names.

This ongoing work is part of the Genius Dog Challenge, and if you have an exceptionally smart dog, the researchers welcome your participation.

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

The research findings have been published in Scientific Reports.