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Your Dog Might Be ‘Gifted,’ According to Scientists

Is your dog “gifted”? One clue that your pooch may fall into this special category is if they can learn the name of their toys, a rare ability linked to playfulness that could shed new light into the behavior and personalities of dogs, reports a new study.

Obviously, every dog is gifted in the general sense, because they are all good boys and girls with lots of love to give. However, the term “giftedness” in scientific studies of canine personality specifically means that a dog is extremely adept at learning new skills. Understanding why some dogs are more gifted in this specific sense, compared to others, can yield deeper insights into canine health and wellbeing, and may even inform studies about human personalities.

As part of their Genius Dog Challenge project, scientists led by Claudia Fugazza, an ethology researcher at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, identified 21 border collies from all around the world that qualified as “Gifted Word Learners,” or GWLs, because they are able to learn the names of their toys, and remember them over a period of months. 

The team asked the owners of the gifted dogs to fill out a dog personality questionnaire, and compared them with the observations of owners of 144 “typical” border collies who answered the same questions. The results revealed that the gifted group were more playful than typical dogs, a finding that could open “new possibilities for comparative research on the relationship between giftedness and personality,” according to a study published this month in Animal Cognition.

“Similar to human studies, our exploratory study did not find differences in most personality traits between the gifted and the typical dogs,” Fugazza and her colleagues said in the study. “The only trait that presented a significant difference between GWL Border collies and…typical Border collies was Playfulness.”

“Giftedness in solving a specific problem (recognizing objects based on verbal labels) may be associated with higher levels of playfulness,” they continued, cautioning that “we do not claim that there is a causal relationship between exaggerated Playfulness and general problem-solving skills in dogs because, to the best of our current knowledge,GWL dogs excel only in this specific cognitive skill.”

The researchers limited their study to border collies because this breed is particularly good at learning words, but they noted that individuals from other breeds—especially other working dogs—could also show this ability. Even among border collies, the ability to learn toy names is extremely rare. As a result, linking this specific skill to playfulness can help scientists understand how and why personalities differ across breeds, and may even inform the role of play in the domestication of dogs by humans thousands of years ago.  

“Interestingly, it has been shown that human-directed play behavior could have been an important trait during dog domestication, and selection for particularly playful individuals may have played an important role in the later artificial selection regime that the domestic dog has gone through in the past few hundred years,” Fugazza and her colleagues said in the study.

“Domestication has also been shown to extend the duration of the sensitive period of socialization,” they continued. “It could be speculated that this, in turn, may also prolong the time when flexibility in learning about specific stimuli—such as words—is maximized, thus allowing word learning in extremely playful, gifted individuals to emerge.”

The new study helps open a window into the mind of these extremely rare gifted dogs, but they may also have implications for understanding how humans acquire rare skills. Playfulness has also been linked to creativity, innovation, and positive work performance in humans, suggesting that there may be similar personality mechanisms at work in people and our furry friends.

“Dogs are also considered one of the best model species for studying some human traits because they evolved and develop in the anthropogenic environment; thus, they are more representative than traditional model species, such as laboratory animals,” said the team in the study.

To that end, if you think your dog is a gifted word learner, you can contact the team through its Genius Dog Challenge project to potentially participate in their research. And if your dog is not gifted in this specific way, give them a big ole belly rub anyway.

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