July 19, 2021
Whether it’s seeing a child take only a few seconds to learn Mary had a Little Lamb on the piano, experiencing getting wiped out by a much better player in a pickup basketball game, or witnessing someone’s encyclopedic memory while they rattle off statistics about geography, humans see natural talent every day.
According to The Good News Network, this story has a lot to do with border collies—a dog species that the authors of the study note has been bred for herding sheep and, therefore, has had to be extra-cognizant of owners’ calls, instructions, and whistles.
The American Kennel Club reported last year on a border collie named Chaser, who had 1,022 toys and knew the individual names of every on; while Science reported on one named Rico who knew the names of 200 toys and could very quickly retrieve those for which he had no name by using exclusion learning and inference at about the level of a three-year-old child.
Locating 34 dog owners across the globe using social media, researcher Claudia Fugazza of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest decided to test whether the pooches could attach specific names to all the toys they played with, and be able to recognize and respond to those names immediately.
Of those 34 dogs, only one border collie succeeded—a young female named Olivia, who sadly died of health complications before the trial could be finished.
But the work continues: “[W]e decided to set up a study in which both puppies and adult naïve dogs are systematically and intensively trained for learning at least two object names over a three-month period, and we used a strictly controlled testing method to assess the dogs’ learning outcome every month from the start of the training,” wrote Fugazza in her paper.
In this study, each month, a scientist visits a dog’s house and tests to see if he or she can retrieve an object based on it name. As each dog succeeds, another word is added.
Perhaps the surprising thing is that of the 34 dogs, 19 were border collies, and 18 of them failed to learn a single name. Also interesting was that, outside of the study, their same research method found that six border collies that could already learn names could continue to learn more.
However, the dogs learned the names of toys “irrespectively of the age of the subjects and despite intensive training,” the researchers wrote, concluding by saying that “while a few rare individuals can rapidly master multiple object names, we suggest that the capacity to learn object-names in dogs shows analogies with exceptional performance (talent) in humans.”
It seems that it’s just as hard to find out why Mozart was Mozart as it is to find out why Chaser the border collie was Chaser the border collie.
Research contact: @goodnewsnetwork