Some dogs, like people, are geniuses.

Many of us believe our dogs are intelligent because they can read our facial expressions and comprehend what we say.

However, some dogs are remarkable. Take Chaser, the “smartest dog in the world,” an American border collie that could recognize and retain 1,022 nouns—one for each of her toys.

Another border collie, Rico, performed “fast-mapping,” or finding out the names of new items with the speed and accuracy of a three-year-old kid, in Germany. A few additional border collies, as well as two Yorkshire terriers, one from Brazil named Vicky Nina and the other an American dog named Bailey, have been discovered to be equally gifted.

The source of talent

The scientists used social media to recruit dog owners all across the world, then urged them to play fetch with their dogs every day in their homes while repeating the name of the toy for three months.

Once a month, with a scientist present, the owners tested the dogs (adults and pups were included in the research) by asking them to retrieve one of two toys by name. Dogs that passed the test were given a new toy and a new name to learn.

Despite the extensive training, only Oliva learned to match a single word to a toy—in fact, she learned 21 names in two months before dying from health concerns she’d had since she was a puppy.

“Nothing was learned by any of the breeds. “It was such a shock,” Fugazza says. To ensure that the study design worked, the scientists examined six border collies that could previously retrieve certain toys by name; all six of those control dogs learned more names, as expected. (Find out how dogs react to human praise.)

Fugazza points out that 18 of the 33 dogs that failed the test were also border collies, demonstrating that the breed isn’t always top performing.

Because such individual variance in intellect happens in humans, she believes dogs may give insight into what makes an animal brilliant and talented.

“A small group of gifted individuals changed the course of history,” she argues. “How come there are so few Mozarts and Einsteins?” Is it a result of heredity, the environment, or practice? We believe that dogs may be utilized as a model for studying the origins of genius.”

To investigate this subject further, scientists want to study the genetics and history of many dog breeds in order to uncover the elements that generate such intelligent creatures.

Many studies believe border collies are exceptionally good at memorizing names because they were developed to herd sheep, which requires them to pay careful attention to herders’ whistles and vocal instructions. (Learn how decades of breeding changed the minds of dogs.)

What makes something exceptional?

Other experts advise caution when defining what is considered extremely intelligent.

“One dog may be good at learning language, while another may be exceptional at removing food from trashcans,” says Monique Udell, a dog-cognition researcher at Oregon State University in Corvallis who was not involved in the study. “However, because to our prejudices, we may only choose to classify the first dog as extraordinary.”

“The fact that some people learn things faster, better, differently, or with more ability than others is evident,” she continues, “and it is a matter worth investigating.”