What do Air Bud, Lassie, and Brian Griffin have in common?
They’re all extraordinarily talented dogs. They’re also all fictional, but that doesn’t mean gifted dogs are a myth—in fact, new research suggests just the opposite: that the canine species might have its own Leonardo, Mozart, or Hawking in its midst.
The study, published in Scientific Reports, gathered 40 dogs who underwent an intensive three-month training program with the end goal being to learn the names of at least two dog toys—the minimum amount necessary to confirm that a dog can actually tell objects apart. Daily lessons involved playing with dogs while repeating the names of toys. Participants included both puppies and full-grown dogs from a variety of breeds, plucked from around the globe.
By the course’s conclusion, researchers found that a handful of dogs had risen to the top of the pack, acquiring knowledge at the breakneck pace of 13 to 39 toy names within the three months. On the other hand, the rest did not show evidence of learning at all. There was hardly any in-between.
Does this mean your beloved pet poodle is probably a dum-dum? Not quite. The research suggests, rather, that the baseline for dogs is that they struggle to associate words with objects. However, a rare few dogs are simply remarkable brainiacs with superior intellect. Or as study authors put it, “gifted word-learner dogs.”
Intriguingly, the ability to learn did not correlate to neuroplasticity in younger minds—the study’s exceptional dogs were all fully grown—nor did it seem to be a product of prior experience, as one of the dogs was never taught vocabulary before. Instead, it’s possible they were just born with it.
“We are intrigued by this extreme inter-individual variation in a cognitive trait (the capacity to learn object labels), and we think that this is just the beginning of a journey that will lead us to better understand the roots of talent—i.e., why some individuals, humans or other species, are gifted in a given field,” coauthor Dr. Adam Miklósi said in a statement.
Alright, we know you want to know: Which dogs are the smart ones? Notably, all seven of the study’s gifted dogs were Border Collies, a traditional sheep-herding breed with a history of performing strategic tasks alongside humans. While collies have long been considered one of the most intelligent breeds, the authors note that 18 other collies in the study were among those that didn’t learn any words. And other studies have identified gifted dogs in other breeds, such as a Yorkshire Terrier from Brazil.
So if you think your pug, or Pomeranian, or golden retriever is the next Socrates, don’t lose hope! Researchers are now looking for more genius dogs to study. Check it out here.