Dog ‘geniuses’ discovered after scientists find evidence for intelligence in key behaviour

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Some “genius” dogs can learn the names of over 100 toys, according to this research. Those that can pass the toy test — which requires a dog to understand the name of two or more of their favourite playthings and retrieve them on request — are so-called ‘Gifted Word Learner’ dogs. These dogs have helped researchers to understand a behaviour that has never previously been studied: the head tilt.

Similar to humans’ preference for one side of their body, dogs, too, exhibit a preferred paw or nostril.

These asymmetric behaviours include tilting the head.

However, up until now, it has been unclear why exactly this happens.

The new research, published in the Animal Cognition journal, was explored in BBC Science Focus magazine.

It suggests that dogs tilt their head when they process something meaningful, or when they expect to be told something important.

Dr Andrea Sommese, lead author of the new study and researcher at Eötvös Loránd University, said: “There are some studies suggesting that tilting the head could be a health-related problem.

“But it didn’t seem likely, because we saw dogs doing it randomly and I’m pretty sure you’ve seen a dog tilting its head – it’s very common behaviour!”

Dr Sommese and the team at the Family Dog Project, a research centre studying the behaviour of dogs, set out to understand head titling with a group of “genius” dogs that they had worked with on a previous study.

This involved 40 dogs and their owners undergoing three months of training to see if dogs could learn the names of its toys.

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Dr Sommese: “We asked each of the owners to play with the dogs using two toys, and to tell the dogs the names of the toys as much as possible.

“After this intensive three months’ training, we saw 33 of the dogs weren’t able to learn the difference between the two toys – we called these the ‘typical’ dogs.

“But the other dogs, during this time, didn’t just learn the two toys, they learned 10, 20, 30.

“Our so-called ‘best dog’ knows the name of 160 toys or something.”

He explained that their results contained a huge difference.

Either a dog learned a lot of different toys, or none.

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However, Dr Sommese stressed that he is not saying dogs that cannot learn names are not clever in other ways.

He said: “We think that learning words is like a talent. In humans there are people that are better at music or maths or art – it seems that there is the same kind of thing going on for dogs.

“Some dogs are particularly skilled in this, but it doesn’t mean that they’re smarter.

“They just have one unique talent, as much as other dogs are better at sniffing or better at hunting.”

Researchers noticed that, after the experiment, the gifted dogs would tilt their head nearly every time their owner asked them to fetch a particular toy.

He added: “Because we knew for sure that they know the name of some of their toys, we thought that it was something meaningful and important for the dog that made it tilt its head.

“It seemed to be as if the dog was saying, ‘Okay, now I’m focused, I’m concentrated on the task.'”

The team initially thought it was to do with the dog’s hearing, such as the way humans might turn their heads to face a person in order to hear them better.

But they quickly noticed that the dogs demonstrated a preferred side to tilt their heads.

This was regardless of the position of the owner.

Dr Sommese explained: “It’s not that typical dogs don’t tilt their heads.

“I observed this behaviour with my own dog.

“It’s just that we don’t know what’s meaningful for them and why.”

Though researchers know dogs process language in a similar way to humans, it is unclear what language means for them, and so the study provided a unique opportunity.

You can subscribe to BBC Science Focus magazine here. 

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