All pet dogs are good at understanding their human owners, but a rare few dogs have an uncanny ability to learn and remember object names, a new study finds.
Hungarian researchers tested the ability of six border collies to remember the names of new toys. The four-part experiment involved teaching the dogs up to 12 new words per week and then testing their ability to remember the toys for as long as two months.
The researchers did not have a specific breed in mind when they began recruiting for the study, which was published Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science. The goal was to find dogs that were "gifted word learners," or had already shown an ability to learn the meaning of many objects.
“The dogs we found after two years of search for dogs of any breed that had learnt the name of their toys happened to be Border Collies,” the study’s first author, Shany Dror, said in an email. Dror is a doctoral student in the department of ethology (the science of animal behavior) at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, and manager of the Genius Dog Challenge. “However, in a previous study we also tried to teach toy names to other Border Collies and they did not show this capacity. So, it turns out that even among Border Collies, this capacity is very rare.”
The border collies selected for the study were three females and three males, with an average age of 3.6 years old, that already knew the names of at least 26 toys.
The process of teaching the dogs words for new toys, Dror explained, was not a formal type of training, but based on the way owners typically play with their pets. The researchers noted that the owners spoke to their dogs with the same tone and vocabulary as parents use when speaking with their toddlers.
“The owner shows the toy to the dog and says its name — for example, ‘look, this is the elephant’—and then starts to give the toy to the dog or throws it for the dog to fetch, always by repeating the name of the toy a few times, for example, ‘go find the elephant,’” Dror said.
For the experiments, owners were given toys that the dogs had never seen. In the first experiment, which tested the dogs’ abilities to learn names of six toys in a week, the toys were scattered with a number of other novel playthings, and the dogs were told to fetch, by name, each of the toys they had become familiar with.
In the second experiment, the dogs were given a week to learn the names of 12 new toys.
In two more experiments, the dogs’ memories were tested at one month and then two months later.
In the first experiment, almost all of the dogs remembered the names of all the toys. In the second experiment, two dogs retrieved all 12 of their new toys, while four of the dogs retrieved 11. Overall, the dogs retrieved the correct toy in more than 86 percent of the trials.
One month later, the dogs retrieved the correct toys in 61.1 percent of the trials.
At two months, they retrieved the correct toy in just over 57 percent of the trials.
“The most surprising result was to see that after two months, during which they had not seen these new toys, the dogs could still remember their names,” Dror said.
After the study was finished, the researchers discovered individuals of other breeds that were also adept at learning new words, including a German shepherd, a Pekingese, a mini Australian shepherd and a few dogs of mixed breeds.
What about dogs that don’t have the ability to learn lots of words?
“What we tested is a very specific skill: the capacity to learn object names,” Dror said.
“All dogs, however, are good at understanding their humans,” she said. “They do so by being able to read even the very subtle movements we make and learning in what context we do what. They are fine tuned to all our activities and can learn a lot by observing us.”