The search for the world’s smartest dog kicks into gear on Wednesday, as contenders compete in a livestreamed event to be crowned top of the canine class.
Researchers in Hungary have spent more than two years searching for dogs who could recognise the names of their different toys, advertising for owners to come forward on social media.
Now the canines they have discovered are set to take part in a series of livestreamed experiments , called the “Genius Dog Challenge”.
Dr Claudia Fugazza, of Eötvös Loránd University, one of the scientists behind the project, said they have been hunting for a rare talent. “We found six such dogs scattered all over the world,” she said, adding the dogs – all of which were border collies – were discovered in Spain, Norway, Hungary, Florida, the Netherlands and Brazil.
“Of course, we cannot claim this is an ability that only belongs to border collies but indeed it does seem to be more frequent in [them],” she said.
Fugazza added that while there had been a handful of reports of dogs being able to learn labels for objects, each involved just one animal – probably because the skill is so rare.
Among previous studies was a report in the journal Science in 2004 of a border collie called Rico who knew the names of more than 200 items, while the Victorian MP Sir John Lubbock, Lord Avebury, apparently claimed his dog, Van was literate.
Fugazza said that learning names of items appears to be a very different task for dogs than learning commands, with almost all dogs able to do the latter – at least to some degree. “In two years of our project we could not train dogs to recognise the name of objects,” said Fugazza. “If it was only a matter of associating a sound with an action that would have been possible.”
While it is not yet clear if the dogs understand the words in the way a human would, the team are keen to unpick the differences between the dogs able to learn words and those who can’t.
The new contest revolves around two challenges. In the first the dogs will be tasked with learning the names of six new toys in the space of the week, while in the second they will be tasked with learning the names of 12 new toys in a week.
The competitors, which include dogs named Max, Gaia and Whisky, will be tested in six live broadcasts on Facebook and YouTube at 7pm CET each week, from 11 November until 16 December , with each broadcast showing two of the dogs being challenged.
Fugazza said she hoped the experiments would not only shed light on how quickly such dogs could learn new words, but might encourage more owners of such dogs to come forward so that the team can carry out further investigations, such as neuroimaging studies.
Whether the winner can truly be said to be smartest canine in the world is a matter of debate – not least as the experiments will focus on just one ability. But Fugazza said she believed it was fair to describe the six contenders as talented, or gifted.
“We can say there are many good musicians among humans, but Mozart was somehow different,” she said. “This is something along these lines.”