Gifted dogs like to play, study finds

“Gifted” dogs, who have a rare talent for learning many words for objects easily, also turn out to be more playful than other dogs, a new study shows.

Previous research in humans has shown a link between playfulness and problem-solving skills, so animal behaviorists from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, wondered if the same was true for rolling puppies.

What is a gifted dog? In the new study, it was Border collies that had been proven in previous research to be able to learn as many as 12 new words per week and then retain them for months.

To look more closely at the possible connection 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 dogs’ personality questionnaires. 21 of the dogs were gifted and the other 114 were just randomly selected without testing for ability to learn words.

The surveys assessed the personality of the animals in five categories:

  • Fears, including fear of people, non-social fear, fear of dogs, fear of handling.

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

  • Activity/excitability, including arousal, playfulness, active engagement and friendship.

  • Responsiveness, such as trainability and controllability.

  • Aggression towards animals, including aggression towards dogs, prey drive and dominance over other dogs.

To evaluate playfulness, owners were asked to rate their dogs in three areas:

  • The dog gets bored quickly while playing.

  • The dog likes to play with toys.

  • The dog fetches objects, such as balls, toys and sticks.

The researchers focused exclusively on Border collies because previous experiments found that the breed is more likely to be good at learning new words compared to others.

After collecting the survey responses, the researchers compared the responses from owners of gifted dogs to those from owners of dogs that 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 the playfulness that helps the dogs learn more words, or whether the extra playfulness ended up with more opportunities to learn, Fugazza, the study’s lead author, said in an email. That’s because gifted dogs tend to learn words for objects when their owners play with them.

Are playful dogs smarter?

Not exactly.

“Intelligence is the result of different cognitive characteristics that allow individuals to flexibly solve different types of problems,” Fugazza explained. “Gift refers to an extremely good capacity for a specific skill.”

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

If your puppy doesn’t learn words easily, it doesn’t mean it’s a stupid dog. Adam Boyko, an expert in dog genomics, assures owners that dog 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, a behavioral genetics specialist and associate professor at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “It is not surprising that the more playful ones show better learning in the domain of learning human words. And it is not surprising that border collies, which are bred to respond to human cues, show a tendency 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 usually do not pick up on human cues.

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

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

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

One thing that can’t be determined from the study is whether the playfulness 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, executive director and president of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies and the author of “Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Obsessive-Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry.”

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

“I’d also like to see it done in another race,” he said.

The new findings may help people who want to buy or adopt a puppy. It suggests that playfulness might be a good quality to consider.

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

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