Super Smart Dogs Learn the Names of Toys Quickly (and Remember Them Later)

Clever Border Collies have their word learning skills tested in new research from the Genius Dog Challenge.

Whisky the Border Collie, a dog in the Genius Dog Challenge, poses with a toy
Whisky, one of the dogs in the study. Photo: Helge O. Svela.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Did you spend lockdown teaching your dog the names of all their toys? No? Well, you’re not alone. But a handful of Border Collie guardians has been busy teaching their very talented dogs the names of new toys, all in the name of science.

The research from the Family Dog Project and the Dept. of Ethology at Eotvos Lorand University is published in Royal Society Open Science. It builds on a previous study that tested 34 regular pet dogs and 6 Border Collies who already knew quite a few words. Those results showed that after 3 months of training, only 1 of the regular pet dogs had been able to learn the names of two novel toys, but the six Border Collies had learned them—and more.

The new study took those same 6 Border Collies and had their owners teach them the names of even more new toys. 

The dogs are Max (Hungary), Gaia (Brazil), Nalani (Nederland), Squall (Florida), Whisky (Norway), and Rico (Spain). They qualified to participate in the challenge by proving they know the names of more than 28 toys, with some knowing more than 100!

The dogs’ guardians were given a week to teach their dog the names of six brand new toys, supplied by the scientists. They did this in play sessions in which they played with the toy and kept saying its name.

Then, on the 7th day, the dog was tested to see if they knew the names of the new toys. Four dogs passed with flying colours and fetched all six toys correctly, while the two other dogs successfully fetched 5 of them, still better than you would expect by chance.

Then a similar experiment was done with 12 new toys. When tested, four dogs fetched 11 toys correctly, and two dogs fetched them all! The design of the study is shown in the video from the Genius Dog Challenge


Another two experiments tested the dogs’ memory for the names one month and two months after. Five dogs fetched all the right toys one month after the training, and one dog did no better than chance. By two months after, three of the dogs got all of them right, and two dogs did no better than chance.

The scientists point out that most studies of language learning have looked at apes, but it’s good to test dogs because they are used to spending time around us and (at least sometimes) paying attention to what we say. 

Prof. Ádám Miklósi, head of the Department of Ethology at ELTE University and coauthor of the study, says, 

“With these talented dogs we have a unique opportunity to study how another species understands the human language and how learning words influences the way we think about the world. Moreover, gifted dogs are especially interesting because they show that also among other species there are individuals that are uniquely talented. With the help of these dogs, we hope to better understand the factors that contribute to the development of talent.”

The design of the study was developed during COVID-19 lockdowns, which meant that the scientists had to take the laboratory to the guardian’s home. To do this, they asked the dogs’ guardians to set up two video cameras and connect to a livestream, which meant that they could fully monitor the dogs’ and the guardians’ behavior. 

“Once we realized we can remotely test the dogs, we decided to bring the experiment to the homes of people all around the world by broadcasting the tests live on YouTube,” says Shany Dror, PhD student and the first author of the study.

The people who took part in this study spent about half an hour a day playing with their dog and teaching them the names, on average, although some spent longer. 

If you know Border Collies, you probably think it’s no accident that all the dogs in this study are BCs. They were recruited because they already knew lots of names of toys. 

Dror says, 

“Originally Border Collies were breed to work as herding dogs, so most of them are very sensitive and responsive to the behavior of their owners. However, although the ability to learn names of toys appears to be more common among Border Collies, in a recently published study we found that even among this breed it is very rare. 
"Moreover, this talent is not unique to this breed. We are constantly searching for more gifted dogs. Thanks to the Genius Dog Challenge we have managed until now to find also dogs from other breeds including a German Shepherd, a Pekingese, a Mini Australian Shepherd and a few dogs of mixed breeds.”

And the scientists are on the lookout for other dogs with the same abilities. So if you think your dog is a genius dog, get in touch with them at the Genius Dog Challenge


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and the forthcoming Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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Reference:
Dror, S., Miklósi, Á, Sommese, A., Temesi, A. and Fugazza, C. (2021) Acquisition and long-term memory of object names in a sample of Gifted Word Learner dogs. Royal Society Open Science, 8(10), https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.210976