by Ross Pomeroy
Albert Einstein. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Marie Curie. Gaia. The first person came up with the general theory of relativity. The second is regarded as perhaps the greatest classical composer of all time. The third is the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. The fourth isn’t a person at all; it’s a dog.
All might be considered geniuses.
Some individuals are supremely gifted, with abilities that the vast majority of people cannot hope to replicate even after years of dedicated practice – the adolescents who are chess grandmasters, the musicians with perfect pitch, the professional athletes who make their colleagues look like amateurs. Scientists have been studying these people for decades, hoping to uncover genetic, environmental, or social underpinnings for their talents. Researchers have yet to find satisfactory answers.
Which brings us to dogs.
Animal behaviorists at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary wondered if some dogs display exceptional cognitive performance – what we might call ‘genius’ – the same way some people do, with the hope that these canines could serve as animal models for studying giftedness in humans.
So they set up a three-month study with the aim of training puppies and adult dogs to recognize the names of various objects and toys. Their performance would be compared to ‘gifted’ adult dogs found from all over the world that had already demonstrated the ability to recognize the names of at least 15 toys. Their owners reported that these dogs seemed to have learned object names spontaneously during typical play interactions, without any additional coaching.
Thirty-four naive dogs and six gifted dogs participated in the research. Could naive dogs catch up to the gifted dogs with dedicated training? Would puppies learn more quickly than adults due to enhanced brain plasticity at such a sensitive age?
The findings were just published to the journal Scientific Reports.
Thirty-three of the 34 puppies and adult dogs without prior training in recognizing objects didn’t learn any object names for the duration of the study. One, however, learned twenty! Her performance was roughly on par with the ‘gifted’ dogs, which each learned an average of twenty object names by the end of the study. One of the ‘gifted’ dogs, the aforementioned Gaia, learned the names of 37 objects! That’s one talented pup…
“These intriguing results strongly point to a qualitative, rather than a quantitative individual variation in the capacity of learning object-names in dogs,” the researchers wrote, “suggesting that this capacity may represent a special skill, that tends to emerge only in some individuals. These few gifted word-learner individuals are outliers and can be considered exceptional, at least with regard to learning names of objects.”
Could another factor explain the result? Motivation didn’t seem to be a problem, as all the dogs seemed very interested in the toys. There also wasn’t any clear difference in expertise between the owners of the naive and gifted dogs, which might result in better temperament and training. Breed almost certainly explained some of the variation, but not all of it.
“All the seven dogs that were able to learn object names in this study were Border collies. However, it is worth noting that, also in the naïve group, 18 dogs were Border collies and, yet they did not show evidence of learning object names,” the researchers said.
So perhaps some dogs can be geniuses.
“It seems that purely environmental, social and other non-specific individual factors do not explain the exceptional performance of the [gifted dogs],” the researchers concluded. “Our results rather point to talent as a label for the extremely specific skill of those few individuals. Thus, we suggest that these subjects are gifted word-learners, in the sense that they possess a specific quality which is far above the typical population and that their exceptional capacity and performance parallel the phenomenon of talent and extreme individual variation in cognitive traits in humans.”
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Ross Pomeroy contributes to RealClearScience.