Every dog owner believes that their dog is special. Scientific findings prove that some dogs are more discriminating, being able to learn the names of hundreds of dog toys. Due to the extreme rarity of this phenomenon, very little was known about these dogs until recently, with most studies documenting this ability based on observations of just one or two dogs. In a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from the ELTE Department of Ethology shed new light on the characteristics of these exceptional dogs.
In a previous study, researchers found that very few dogs could learn the names of objects, especially dog toys. The researchers wanted to understand this phenomenon better, so they looked for more dogs that possess this ability. In 2020, they launched a social media campaign and broadcast their experiences with word-learning dogs in the hope of finding more such dogs.
“This was what was called a citizen science project, meaning that community-based scientific research was done with the participation of the public.” He explains Dr. Claudia Fugazza, head of the research group, is responsible for the research process. “If a dog owner contacts us because they think their dog knows the names of toys, we ask them to test their dog’s ability using a certain method and send us a video of the test.”
The researchers then held an online meeting with the dog owners to observe whether the dog actually knew the names of their toys, under controlled conditions. In addition, dog owners had to fill out a questionnaire about the dogs' history.
“In the questionnaire, we asked dog owners about their dog’s readiness and living conditions, and we were curious about their experiences raising and training dogs, as well as how the dog learned the names of its toys,” explains Dr. Andrea Somisi, co-author of the study.
The researchers collected 41 dogs from nine countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Hungary. Previous studies on this topic included border collies. Thus, although learning to name objects is very rare even in border collies, it was not surprising that many of the dogs in the current study (56%) were also of this breed.
However, some non-purebred dogs, such as Pomeranian Spitz, Pekingese, Shih Tzu, Corgi, poodles, and some mixed breeds have also been shown to be able to learn toy names.
Surprisingly, most dog owners reported that they did not intentionally teach their dogs the names of the toys. Rather, the dogs spontaneously learned the names of each toy while playing with their owners. – says Shani Dror, head of research.
The vast majority of the study's owners had no experience training dogs, and the researchers found no relationship between the owners' experience and the dogs' ability to choose the appropriate toys when they heard the names.
“In our previous studies, we showed that these word-learning dogs learn the names of new objects very quickly,” Dror explains. “So it's not surprising that when we tested the dogs, the average number of toys the dogs already knew was 29, but when we published the results, more than 50% of owners reported that their dogs already knew more than 100 toy names that had gained a vocabulary.”
“Because dogs learning words are so rare, there have only been anecdotes about their background until now,” explains Professor Adam Miklosi, Head of the Department of Ethology at ELTE and co-author of the study. “The rare ability to learn the names of objects is the first documented case of the gift in a non-human species. The relatively large number of individuals documented in this study helps define common characteristics of dogs and brings us one step closer to understanding their shared characteristics.” A unique ability.”