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Dogs can ‘effortlessly’ learn names of their toys, study finds


Dogs can ‘effortlessly’ learn the names of their toys, a new study finds – but most likely if they’re a Border Collie. 

In a sample of 40 dogs, seven were able to learn the names of their toys – like Turtle, Squirrel and Mickey Mouse – after three months of training. 

Amazingly, one of the dogs, a Border Collie, was able to recognise the names of a whopping 37 toys. 

But the ability to learn toy names is relatively rare in dogs, and only apparent in a number of ‘gifted’ individuals, the study authors say. 

Six of the 40 dogs that were adept at learning toy names had prior training, meaning only one of the remaining 34 dogs – about 3 per cent – was able to learn the skill from scratch during the study period. 

Researchers also found that both puppies and mature dogs had the ability to learn toy names, which was a surprise because puppies generally have greater neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change and adapt.  

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Pictured, Gaia, a Border Collie involved in the study, owned by Isabella Imiguel in Brazil. Researchers found Border Collies were the best learners

The study has been conducted by researchers at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, as part of their ‘Family Dog Project’. 

Eötvös Loránd University is behind the Genius Dog Challenge, an online competition where pups around the world to prove themselves the smartest.  

‘Many studies before us have proven that dogs can learn words that refer to actions, such as sit, down, come,’ study author Shany Dror told MailOnline. 

TOY NAMES LEARNT BY GIFTED DOGS 

Gaia (Brazil) – 37

Max (Hungary) – 21

Oliva (Brazil) – 21 

Squall (Florida) – 19 

Whisky (Norway) – 16 

Nalani (Nederlands) – 16 

Rico (Spain) – 11

All the above were Border Collies.

‘But we noticed that very few studies reported on the ability of dogs to learn toy names; therefore we were interested in specifically testing this area.’  

The dog that named 37 words was a three-year-old Border Collie called Gaia from Brazil.   

While 37 is a lot of names to learn, it doesn’t compare to the achievements of the world’s ‘most intelligent dog’ called Chaser, who knew more than 1,000 nouns

Chaser, who died in 2019, was also a Border Collie, which has been commonly referred to as the cleverest dog breed. 

American Kennel Club says: ‘Dog experts widely agree that the Border Collie is an intelligent workaholic. 

‘They are capable of learning a remarkable number of words and commands, and they are happiest when they are put to work every day.’ 

For the study, the researchers devised an intensive three-month-long training programme aimed at teaching the 40 dogs the name of at least two toys. 

Oliva, a Border Collie owned by Mariana Cordivola in Brazil. Sadly, Oliva passed away before the end of the study

Oliva, a Border Collie owned by Mariana Cordivola in Brazil. Sadly, Oliva passed away before the end of the study

WHAT DOG BREEDS WERE INVOLVED?  

In the puppy group, there were 15 dogs, all from Hungary.

Nine were Border Collies. Other breeds included: 1 Border Terrier (named Kesu),1 King Poodle (named Rigo), 1 Toy Poodle (Monk), 1 Australian Shepherd (Scotch), 1 Schipperke (Taz), 1 Kelpie (Benhur).

In the adult group, we had 19 dogs, 9 of which were Border Collies.

2 Vizsla (Lena and Liza), 2 Whippets (Enzo and Winston), 1 Schnauzer (Langos), 1 Weimaraner (Zader), 1 Mudi (Donci), 2 Mongrels (Pixi, Csipesz), 1 Labrador poodle Mix (Lujza).

The remaining six dogs were ‘gifted’ Border Collies that already had a vocabulary of toy names when the study began.

This is because two is the minimum amount necessary to be able to assess whether dogs can tell the items apart based on their names.  

The training protocol included daily playful interactions between the dog and the owner, during which the owner repeated the name of the toy several times, as well as weekly sessions that also included a dog trainer. 

During testing, researchers asked the owners to sit in one room while the toys were placed in another. 

When the owners asked the dog for a toy, the dog would leave the owner and select a toy from the other room. 

‘At first, we hypothesised that developmental factors, such as neuroplasticity during puppyhood, would have played a role in making puppies learn object names at a faster rate, compared to adult dogs,’ said study author Dr Claudia Fugazza. 

‘Thus, we recruited for this study puppies and adults.

‘Other breeds involved in the study included Border Terrier, King Poodle, Australian Shepherd and Schnauzer.  

‘We were surprised to find that, despite the intensive training, most dogs, irrespective of their age, did not show any evidence of learning,’ said Dr Fugazza.

In all, seven adult dogs, all Border Collies, showed an ‘exceptional learning capacity’ – they did not only learn the two toy names but, within the duration of the study, they learned between 11 and 37 other novel toy names.   

Among these seven dogs, six – Gaia, Max, Whisky, Nalani, Squall and Rico – had already possessed a vocabulary of toy names before the study began.   

Squall, a Border Collie owned by Bobbie Kurivial in Florida. American Kennel Club says: 'Dog experts widely agree that the Border Collie is an intelligent workaholic'

Squall, a Border Collie owned by Bobbie Kurivial in Florida. American Kennel Club says: ‘Dog experts widely agree that the Border Collie is an intelligent workaholic’

Whisky, a Border Collie owned by Helge O. Svela in Norway. The dog names were fairly simple - like Turtle, Squirrel and Mickey Mouse

Whisky, a Border Collie owned by Helge O. Svela in Norway. The dog names were fairly simple – like Turtle, Squirrel and Mickey Mouse

The seventh dog, named Oliva, did not previously know toy names, but learned 21 in only two months. Sadly, Oliva passed away before the end of the study.  

‘All the seven dogs that showed this exceptional talent are Border collies, a breed meant to cooperate with humans for herding purposes,’ said Dror.

Being a Border collie is not necessarily certain to be gifted when it comes to learning words, however. 

‘It is important to keep in mind that, within the many dogs that did not show any evidence of learning, there were also 18 Border collies,’ added Dror. 

The study, which has been published in Scientific Reports, follows multiple projects by Eötvös Loránd University investigate communication and learning in dogs. 

Max, a Border Collie owned by Ildiko Gyenes in Hungary. Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest is continuously investigating communication and learning in dog breeds

Max, a Border Collie owned by Ildiko Gyenes in Hungary. Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest is continuously investigating communication and learning in dog breeds

Earlier this year, the research team reported that the most gifted dogs can learn new words after hearing them only four times

According to the experts, that’s roughly the same speed as a toddler at around two to three years old.  

Another study by the team, published last year, found dogs have trouble with words that are phonetically similar, such as ‘dog’ and ‘dig’. 

Dogs don’t realise that ‘every sound of a word matters’ – not just the sounds at the start and the end, the experts said at the time.

Because of this, they may be doomed to a limited vocabulary no matter how much we train them.  

IS DOG INTELLIGENCE AKIN TO HUMAN INTELLIGENCE?

Dogs’ abilities to learn are varied, much like humans’ abilities, according to WebMD.

Dogs that were bred in order to hunt, retrieve or herd are faster learners because they are inherently quicker on their feet.

Similarly, dogs bred to guard livestock or track scents are usually slower.

A new study has found that mental deterioration among older dogs can be staved off if the dogs complete brain teasers on a touch screen (file photo)

A new study has found that mental deterioration among older dogs can be staved off if the dogs complete brain teasers on a touch screen (file photo)

The key in training your dog, WebMD says, comes down to knowing what your dog was bred to accomplish.

However, all dogs can be trained to follow simple commands, according to trainers.

WebMD reports that the following are the most naturally intelligent dog breeds:

  1. Border Collie
  2. Poodle
  3. German Shepherd
  4. Golden Retriever
  5. Doberman Pinscher
  6. Shetland Sheepdog
  7. Labrador Retriever
  8. Papillon
  9. Rottweiler
  10. Australian Cattle Dog 



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