All doggos are best doggos — that goes without saying. But some show a better ability to learn things. When it comes to verbal labels (the name of things), the most gifted dogs also seem to be more playful than typical dogs.
Personality and cognition are distinct domains, both in humans and in dogs. But some personality traits may influence memorizing problem-solving abilities. It’s been suggested before that personality traits may even predict some cognitive abilities. In humans, it’s been suggested that there is a positive relationship between playfulness and problem solving, but are similar associations present for dogs?
To analyze this, the researchers of the Family Dog Project, the largest dog research group in the world analyzed how so-called Gifted Word Learner dogs (those that show the rare capacity to quickly learn multiple object names) differ in personality traits from typical dogs.
The researchers administered a questionnaire to dog owners.
“We administered the Dog Personality Questionnaire to 21 gifted dog owners and compared the personality traits of their dogs to those of matched samples of 43 Hungarian and 101 Austrian typical dogs, i.e., dogs lacking this exceptional capacity,” the study notes.
“This is a validated questionnaire that reveals personality traits in dogs and has been already successfully used in several published studies,” explains Borbala Turcsan, co-author of the study.
The results were then compared to data obtained on the same questionnaire on a sample of 144 typical dogs from Austria and Hungary (the Family Dog Project is based in Hungary, which is why the study focused more on this area). Researchers only focused on border collies, because this breed seems to yield a disproportionate number of gifted learners.
“However, it is important to point out that the vast majority of Border collies do not show this talent,” points out Andrea Sommers, co-author of the study. “And also that there are some Gifted Word Learners that do not belong to this breed,” adds Shany Dror, another study co-author.
The only personality difference that stood out was playfulness. Researchers note that in general, working breeds are more playful than non-working breeds, and the Border collie was originally selected as a working breed. Typical Border collies are generally more playful than the average breed, and the study showed that the gifted ones are even more playful.
However, it’s not clear if there is a causal link between giftedness and playfulness, and even if there is, it’s not clear if gifted dogs tend to be more playful, or if playful dogs tend to be more gifted.
“The Border collie belongs to the most playful breeds, along with other working dogs. Gifted Word Learner (GWL) dogs are very rare, even among working dog breeds, thus high Playfulness, which may be a prerequisite, in itself does not explain the emergence of any specific skill. However, the GWL collies scored even higher than the typical ones in Playfulness. Thus, extremely high levels of Playfulness may somehow support the emergence of the capacity to learn object names,” the study concludes.
Ádám Miklósi, another co-author of the study, emphasizes the importance of further exploring the link between playfulness and giftedness, incorporating the human factor. Since the study was mostly based on human questionnaires, it’s important to consider the potential biases that could emerge from such questionnaires.
“However, it is important to note that this does not necessarily imply that playfulness is what makes this talent emerge. We do not exclude it, but it could also be that the extreme playfulness in the gifted individuals is driven or perceived by the owners as a result of frequent playful interactions with their dogs, with named toys.”
C. Fugazza et al, A comparison of personality traits of gifted word learner and typical border collies, Animal Cognition (2022). DOI: 10.1007/s10071-022-01657-x