A ‘genius’ challenge tests six talented — and very cute — dogs

This is the Genius Dog Challenge.

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If you're a dog owner, there's a good chance that you think your pup is so much smarter than all the other ones on the block. After all, no one can fetch like Fido, right?

But when it comes to language learning, some dogs just stand out ahead of the rest of the pack.

A group of researchers from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest spent more than two years searching the globe for talented pooches to compete in their Genius Dog challenge.

Now, the pups will battle it out on livestream to see who is the smartest of them all — well, sort of.

Language learning — "The dogs that participate in the challenge are extremely talented in receptive language learning, but we do not know if they may also be talented in other domains," Claudia Fugazza, a researcher in the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University and one of the team members leading the Genius Dog Challenge, tells Inverse.

In the challenge, the dogs compete based on their unique capacity for language learning. While most dogs can recall commands — "Fetch" or "Sit" — far fewer canines can remember objects by name.

Animals that can master this ability may not be the next Einstein of the dog world, but they are talented in this one cognitive skill, and that sets them apart from their peers.

Nalani, one of the dogs from the challenge.

Sonja De Laat Spierings

"The capacity to learn object names is a specific cognitive skill related to receptive language learning. It does not show that one individual is a “genius” in general; the talent is only related to this cognitive skill," Fugazza explains.

Good boys — Before the dogs could compete, the researchers had their own challenge: find six dogs who could learn the names of toys and fetch them without the owners resorting to visual cues.

Through word-of-mouth and social media advertising, the researchers eventually found Rico from Spain, Whiskey from Norway, Max from Hungary, Squall from Florida, Gaia from Brazil, and Nalani from the Netherlands.

As it turns out, all six of the dogs are border collies.

"We do not know at the moment, but it may be that this talent is more common in border collies than in other breeds," Fugazza says.

During the recruitment process, researchers were surprised to find that the dogs learned toys' names without much instruction from their owners.

"The dogs simply seemed to pick up the names without any effort. Our surprised faces must have been very evident, also because we have tried hard to teach dogs the name of toys, but we have not succeeded," Fugazza says.

Whiskey, one of the dogs from the challenge.

Helge O. Savela

Play Time — In the first challenge, the researchers gave the six dogs a week to learn the names of six toys in a box, then tested their recall live on YouTube, using specific parameters to control for outside factors.

The researchers put the owners and the dogs in a separate room from the toys to control for the possibility of the owners using visual cues — such as eye movement — to direct the dogs.

Two adorable pooches, Whiskey and Rico, faced off in the first livestream challenge on November 11th.

While Whiskey and Rico believed they were merely playing, in fact, thousands of audience viewers from around the world were watching their every moment with bated breath.

In the experiment, the researchers told owners which toy the dog should fetch at each stage of the competition. The owners would then state the names of the toys (e.g., Silver, Green).

A screenshot from the livestream on November 11th.

Then, the dogs would rush off to the next room, where toys were scattered all over the floor. The researchers included additional toys to control for the dog randomly picking up the right toy by chance.

The dogs picked up and returned the chosen toy to their triumphant owners — who in turn greeted them with much petting.

Subsequent challenges will air live on YouTube and Facebook every Wednesday, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern through December 16th.

Once dogs reach the second stage of the challenge, the researchers will double the level of difficulty by asking the dogs to learn the names of 12 toys in six days before inviting them back for a final livestream battle.

What's Next — Although this challenge is only one of several projects that the researchers are conducting as part of their word-learning research program, Fugazza believes it could shed light on these dogs' cognitive abilities.

"One of the things we plan to do with our research is to find out if these dogs differ from most dogs in some other cognitive skills," Fugazza says. "We do hope to learn about receptive language in dogs and, eventually, also, about the evolution of language in general."

Plus, by studying our furry friends, we might learn a thing or two about ourselves.

"The dog is a very good model species to study human cognition because dogs evolved and develop in the human environment; therefore they are a model species that is much more representative than laboratory animals," Fugazza says.

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