A border collie fetches an object, but he isn’t obeying an ordinary command. He is bringing back the exact toy requested by its owner.
With his friend Lizzy, Max is part of a group of 6 border collies being called genius dogs.
All are capable of learning the names of around 100 objects and identifying them.
“We can work with these dogs to see how they learn the new name of objects and compare this with how humans learn the name of objects so we have a better understanding of the processes, so we are basically looking at the evolution of cognition,” says Shany Dror, research fellow at the Eötvös Lóránt University in Budapest.
She is part of a team that has spent more than two years looking for dogs all around the world, including talented ones like Max who shows a great understanding of the human language.
They found that most dogs were unable to master the skill of learning the names of items.
“Traditional research is looking at averages, at the average performance of a group or a population,”, says Adam Miklosi, head of the Ethology department. “But in this case, we are interested in these eccentric outliers. And we can see that with dogs, word learning is something only a very small part of the population is capable of, and that’s a very interesting parallel with how for example musically someone becomes a special person compared to others”.
Through this experiment, researchers are also looking for answers to what triggers the characteristic sideways head nods of dogs and how other species understand human language.
The results will not only tell us more about dogs, but also about humans. The lessons learned from the communication between the two species could even be applied to robotics.