Gifted dogs love to play, study finds

“Gifted” dogs, which have a rare talent for easily learning many words for objects, are also more playful than other dogs, according to a new study.

Previous research in humans has shown a link between play and problem-solving skills, so animal behavior researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, wondered if the same was true for playful puppies.

What is a talented dog? In the new study, it was border collies who proved in previous research that they were capable of learning up to 12 new words a week and then retaining them for months.

To take a closer look at the possible association between giftedness and playfulness in dogs, Claudia Fugazza, a researcher in the university’s department of ethology (the study of animal behavior), and her colleagues asked the owners of 165 border collies to fill out the dog’s personality questionnaires. . Twenty-one of the dogs were gifted and the other 114 were randomly selected without any test of word learning ability.

The surveys evaluated the animals’ personalities in five categories:

  • Fear, including fear of people, antisocial fear, fear of dogs, fear of handling.

  • Aggression against people, including general aggression and aggression in certain situations.

  • Activity/Excitability, including excitability, playfulness, active engagement, and companionship.

  • Responsiveness, such as trainability and controllability.

  • Aggression against animals, including aggression against dogs, hunting and dominance over other dogs.

For the playfulness assessment, owners were asked to rate their dogs in three areas:

  • Dog gets bored in the game quickly.

  • Dog likes to play with toys.

  • Dog retrieves objects such as balls, toys and sticks.

The researchers only focused on border collies because previous experiments have found that the breed is more likely to learn new words compared to others.

After collecting the survey responses, the researchers compared the responses of gifted dog owners with those of dog owners who were not identified as gifted.

Playfulness was the only personality trait that was consistently different between the two groups.

It’s not clear from the study whether it’s play that helps dogs learn more words, or whether the playful ones end up with more learning opportunities, Fugazza, the study’s lead author, said in an email. That’s because gifted dogs tend to learn words for objects when their owners are playing with them.

Are playful dogs smarter?

Not exactly.

“Intelligence is the result of several cognitive traits that allow individuals to flexibly solve different types of problems,” explained Fugazza. “Giftedness refers to an extremely good ability in the case of a specific skill.”

So maybe gifted dogs are like people who score high on the verbal part of the SATs.

If your dog doesn’t learn words easily, that doesn’t mean he’s a dumb dog. Adam Boyko, a canine genomics expert, reassures owners that canine intelligence is more than that.

“Both dogs and wolves are playful when they are puppies, but dogs have really evolved to live in the human environment and to respond to social cues,” said Boyko, an expert in behavioral genetics and an associate professor at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “It is not surprising that the most playful perform better in the domain of learning human words. And it’s not surprising that Border Collies, which are bred to respond to human signals, show a propensity to learn words more than other breeds.”

Other dog breeds can show intelligence in other ways, Boyko said. For example, wolves are very intelligent, although they do not normally perceive human signals.

“But they can figure out how to escape,” Boyko said. “Where the dogs would look for a person to help, the wolves would see how the humans would do a latch and lock and then the wolves would do it on their own to get out.”

Boyko would like to take the study a step further and look at the genetics of gifted dogs.

“This is a tantalizing correlation that could be significant if you’re trying to build better service dogs,” he said.

One thing that can’t be determined from the study is whether the playful trait spurred owners to interact more with their dogs and thus teach them more words, said Dr. , professor emeritus at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, CEO and president of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, and author of “Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry.”

Dodman said the study is interesting but needs to be replicated in larger numbers of dogs.

“I would also like to see this done in a different breed,” he said.

The new findings could help people looking to buy or adopt a puppy. This suggests that playfulness might be a good attribute to consider.

“Pranksters may be more likely to interact with a person, assimilate words more easily and be more intelligent,” said Dodman.

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