Meet the canine masterminds with the cognitive skills of human infants

Genius Dog Challenge participants
(Image credit: Genius Dog Challenge)

We all know our dogs are much cleverer than they let on, but a worldwide 'Genius Dog Challenge' has found six precocious pooches with a remarkable grasp of the human language. Their word skills were similar to that of 18-month-old children which is the age when they are starting to learn to string sentences together.

Hungarian researchers spent 24 months scouring the globe for canine Einsteins who could recognize the names for various different toys. This is an unusual ability, as although dogs can easily learn commands like 'fetch' and 'sit', the learning of an object's name is much harder for the average four-legged friend to master.

Shany Dror, lead researcher, from Eotvos Lorand University, Hungary, said: “For more than two years we searched around the world for dogs that had learnt the names of their toys, and we managed to find six.”

The team located the brainy barkers via social media. They invited dog owners who owned four-legged friends who had the ability to remember and retrieve different toys by name to enter the contest. 

Those chosen were then set the challenge of learning the names of 6 toys in 6 days. This was then upped to 12 toys in 6 days. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the worldwide nature of the event, the dogs' word recognition skills were then tested in live-streamed events.

Six dogs qualified to participate in the challenge: Max from Hungary, Gaia from Brazil, Nalani from the Netherlands, Squall from the US, Whisky from Norway, and Rico from Spain, making it a truly international search. Each dog easily learned 12 toys each, with some of them being able to remember up to 100 toy names.

Claudia Fugazza, the head of the research team, said: “These gifted dogs can learn new names of toys at a remarkable speed. In our previous study we found they could learn a new toy name after hearing it only four times. But, with such short exposure, they did not form a long-term memory of it.” This time, when tested, the dogs could still remember their toys two months later.

All the dogs were Border Collies, but the researchers also marked out German Shepherds, Pekinese and mini-Australian Shepherd dogs as particularly bright. The results of the research were published in a Royal Society Paper which hopes to advance the understanding of dog's learning abilities and memory. 

As it points out: "Dogs with a vocabulary of object names are rare and are considered uniquely gifted. In a few cases, these Gifted Word Learner (GWL) dogs have presented cognitive skills that are functionally similar to those of human infants."

You can see more of these clever dogs in action at the Genius Dog Challenge website.

Jamie Middleton

Jamie Middleton is a freelance editor and writer who has been editing and creating content for magazines and websites for over 20 years. As well as writing about the pets he loves, he has helped create websites about tech and innovation like, Innovate UK and TechSPARK, written programmes for music festivals, books on inventions and architecture, TV listings magazines, and edited publications about cars such as Lexus, Toyota and Jaguar. In his spare time he writes fiction books and poetry - or at least he does when he is permitted to by his cat Pirate, who enjoys the warmth of laptops too much to allow being creative to get in the way.