All pet dogs understand their owners, but a select few have an uncanny ability to learn and remember object names, according to a new study.
Six border collies were tested for their ability to remember the names of new toys by Hungarian researchers. The dogs were taught up to 12 new words per week for four weeks before being tested on their ability to remember the toys for up to two months.
When the researchers began recruiting for the study, which was published Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, they did not have a specific breed in mind. The goal was to find dogs who were “gifted word learners,” or who had already demonstrated the ability to learn the meaning of a variety of objects.
“The dogs we found after two years of searching for dogs of any breed who had learned the names of their toys happened to be Border Collies,” said Shany Dror, the study’s first author, in an email. Dror is the manager of the Genius Dog Challenge and a doctoral student in the department of ethology (the science of animal behavior) at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. “However, in a previous study, we attempted to teach toy names to other Border Collies, but they did not demonstrate this ability.” As it turns out, this ability is extremely rare even among Border Collies.”
The border collies chosen for the study were three females and three males with an average age of 3.6 years old who already recognized the names of at least 26 toys.
Dror added that the method of teaching the dogs new toy phrases was not formal, but rather based on how owners generally play with their pets. The owners used the same tone and terminology while speaking to their dogs as parents do with their kids, according to the study.
“The owner introduces the toy to the dog and says its name — for example, ‘see, this is the elephant’ — and then begins to give the toy to the dog or throws it for the dog to fetch, constantly repeating the item’s name a few times, for example, ‘go locate the elephant,'” Dror explained.
Owners were given toys that the dogs had never seen before for the studies. The toys were distributed alongside a variety of other innovative playthings in the first experiment, which assessed the dogs’ skills to acquire the names of six toys in a week, and the dogs were directed to fetch, by name, each of the toys they had grown familiar with.
The dogs were given a week in the second trial to learn the names of 12 new toys.
The dogs’ memory was evaluated again after one month and again after two months in two further studies.