Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

That quizzical look on dogs’ faces when they cock their heads at an angle always makes for a great photo. A story on the science.org website says that when dogs cock their heads like this, they are doing more than just being cute. A first-ever study that looked into dog learning through play matched what are called “gifted dogs” with regular dogs and found a surprising difference.

Gifted learners

Dogs that are “gifted learners” can learn the names of as many as a dozen new toys each week and retain that knowledge for several months. The study, published in the Royal Society of Open Science, says gifted dogs have cognitive skills that are on a par with human infants. If your dogs are average, they can learn simple commands like sit, stay, shake and roll over. If your dogs are gifted, they are able to very quickly learn the names of a surprisingly large number of objects and retain that knowledge over time.

The Genius Dog Challenge

A team of canine researchers created the Genius Dog Challenge, a combination social media campaign and research study. For two years, the study authors used media announcements and informal discussions at seminars to search all around the world for dogs that were able to memorize the names of their toys. The researchers found six genius dogs living in six different countries. All six of the gifted dogs were Border Collies, a breed known to have a very high dog IQ.

Learning through play

Unlike most dogs, Border Collies are constantly thinking, analyzing and reacting to every movement you make. What make this ability to learn the names of so many toys so baby-like is that the gifted dogs in the study had learned those names informally by playing with their owners and not through formal training.

Childhood developmental experts long ago learned that very young children do their best learning with hands-on play activities

Companies like Melissa and Doug, Leapfrog, Osmo and others all design and manufacture interactive toys for childhood learning. The central thesis is that play is the best and most enjoyable way to learn.

Study findings

In trials, owners would say a toy’s name and ask their dog to retrieve it. The gifted dogs were very good at this. As it so happened, researchers also found regular dogs cocked their heads two percent of the time and gifted dogs cocked their heads 40% of the time.

When one test group does something twenty times as often as another, there is something big going on

As it turns out, only dogs that correctly connected the name with the toy consistently tilted their heads. Researchers observed gifted dogs were even left tilters or right tilters, just as humans are left handed or right handed.


The researchers were obliged to issue the standard disclaimer that their observations are not proofs of anything. This is surely the case because their findings can so far be applied only to their six Gifted Border Collies. That having been said, the authors think the tilting is somehow related to higher levels of awareness, attentiveness and concentration in gifted dogs. As someone who has taught three different subjects to college students at three different universities, I can tell you that I observed year after year that human college students with higher than average levels of awareness, attentiveness and concentration are the fastest and best learners.

Want to read more articles like this? Click here for free, no-ad, no-tracking access to the more than 250 articles David has written each week since 2016. He covers lots of topics but all involve the notion there is always more to things than meets the eye.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.