Two renowned dog cognition scientists are hunting worldwide for a very rare breed – dogs who can identify 20 or more objects by name.

Dr Juliane Kaminski, director of the Dog Cognition Centre at the Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, and Dr Juliane Bräuer, head of the Dog Studies Lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, are on a quest to find the world’s most gifted dogs.

Their citizen science project, Finding Rico, is named after an exceptionally gifted Border Collie. Rico’s owners had reported their dog’s exceptional abilities to animal psychologist Dr Kaminski, who, together with Julia Fischer and Josep Call, were the first scientists to publish research on gifted dogs.

Dr Kaminski devised a test where Rico was asked to fetch objects, which showed he understood 200 words and could recall words for weeks after being taught them. This ability is broadly comparable to language-trained apes, dolphins, sea lions and parrots.

Rico lying in grass
Rico Photo: by Susanne Baus

Rico also responded correctly to the word for a new object after hearing it just once. This suggested he had the canine equivalent of the ability to fast map, a mechanism widely used by babies and children to learn language.

Dr Kaminski’s research, published in Science in 2004 (https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.1097859), proving Rico was exceptional, was the first study of its kind. She has subsequently built a vast body of work on dog cognition, including finding dogs are more skilful than wolves or chimpanzees at reading human signals, and said, “Although that was a long time ago and despite all the research since, we still do not know what makes some dogs truly exceptional.”

And so the search is on to find other Ricos worldwide.

Dr Kaminski said, “Rico was clearly one of the most exceptionally gifted dogs, but we know there are others out there who are as gifted. We hope this citizen science project will inspire people to work with us to test their dogs’ intelligence and to establish how common such a superb skill really is.”

Dr Bräuer adds: “Finding these dogs will help us understand what it is that makes these dogs so exceptionally skilled and whether they truly are the ‘Einsteins’ of the dog world.”

The two researchers, long-time collaborators in the field of dog cognition, have made a video, Finding Rico, in eight different languages in the hope of reaching dog owners far and wide.

Those who think their dog is – or might be – as clever as Rico and who can identify at least 20 objects, are urged to get in touch with the researchers via email: findingricodogs@gmail.com

Finding Rico video:

https://vimeo.com/574065197/cf11fadfb4

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