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Smart dogs learn words quickly, but only after playing with their owners

Dog smiling surrounded by many stuffed toys on red sofa
(Image credit: Getty Images)

While learning the names of objects is often thought of as a capacity only humans have, the latest research is showing that smart dogs have the ability to rapidly learn new words without any formal training. In a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers discovered that smart dogs can learn new words simply by playing with dog toys and their owners.

In the study conducted at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, researchers conducted experiments to test whether a Border Collie named Whisky and a Yorkshire Terrier called Vicky Nina, could pick out a specific toy just by hearing its name. The experiments were conducted under two conditions: formal training or social interaction. 

"We wanted to know under which conditions the gifted dogs may learn novel words. To test this, we exposed Whisky and Vicky Nina to the new words in two different conditions -- during an exclusion-based task and in a social, playful context with their owners," said study first author Claudia Fugazza.

In formal training, the dogs underwent an exclusion-based task where they were presented with seven familiar toys and one new one. They were told the name of the new toy four times and two minutes later were asked “Bring (the object's name).” Both dogs were able to identify the new toy, but only through a process of elimination. When all toys were present and they were asked to select the correct toy through name alone, they failed to be able to do so.

However, following a period of play with their owners, both dogs showed a high success rate in being able to locate and select the correct toy based on its name. Whisky retrieved the right toy on 17 out of 24 occasions, and Vicky Nina did even better, identifying the correct toy 15 out of 20 times. 

When the experiment was conducted again with 20 new dogs, none were able to learn the new name, suggesting that only very smart dogs are capable of rapid learning. Researchers have launched the Genius Dog Challenge to further investigate the learning capabilities of special dogs like Whisky and Vicky Nina.

If you think your dog has what it takes to be a canine whizzkid fill in the entry form to apply.