Dogs are like babies: everyone thinks theirs is exceptionally smart. But how can you tell if your dog is actually intelligent, or just adorable? Sure, they respond to their own name, or to a good word (“walk” or “treat”) or bad one (“vet” or “bath”)—though that may have more to do with survival than having a solid command of the English language.
But now, a recent paper published in the journal Nature, indicates that some dogs are capable of a skill previously thought to be limited to humans. Here’s what to know about that, and how to figure out if your dog is secretly a genius.
How to administer a doggy IQ test
In the study published in Nature, researchers found that some dogs are able to learn the name of a new object after hearing it only four times. And, according to Dr. Jan Hoole, a lecturer in biology at the University of Keele who wrote about the paper for The Conversation, it’s possible to replicate the test at home with your own dog. Here’s what to do:
- Start with a baseline test. Place several objects that your dog is familiar with in front of them.
- Staying out of your dog’s line of sight, say, “Bring [name of toy/object.]” Keep track of how many items they were able to recognize solely based on their name. If they were able to identify many of the familiar items that way, you can take it to the next level to see how quickly they can learn the names of new objects.
- Show the dog two new items, tell them the name of each object, and then let them play with them for a while.
- After repeating the name of each toy four times, ask the dog to choose one of the two new toys. (Don’t include any that are familiar, so they don’t pick a new one by the process of elimination.)
- Do this repeatedly, and keep track of how many times the dog chooses the correct item when you requested it by name.
In the study, the first two dogs were able to identify one of the new toys more frequently than by chance—but when the experiment was repeated with 20 other dogs, none of them demonstrated this level of ability when it came to quickly learning the name of a new object.
But does this actually show anything?
That depends. The researchers pointed out that more work has to be done before it can be determined if some dogs are truly gifted in the intelligence department, or it’s a product of training or their breed (or some combination of those).
For example, Hoole notes that border collies and Yorkshire terriers are both known for being mentally motivated, and may perform better on a test like this. On the other hand, dogs traditionally used for hunting or racing—like salukis and greyhounds—may not be interested in toys or pleasing their human, and refuse to cooperate with the training or testing component of the experiment.
But that doesn’t mean that they’re not smart: like humans, dogs aren’t all motivated by the same things. (Except treats.)