If you’re looking for a competition where you don’t have to worry about whether the losers will concede, you might try the Genius Dog Contest.
Episodes of the contest, which is also a scientific experiment, will be live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube every Wednesday at 1 p.m. until Dec. 16. It will test six of the world’s smartest dogs, found by word of mouth and social media, on their ability to learn the names of new objects.
Some dogs, like the Border collie, became famous for scientific studies that show their ability to remember words. One member of that breed, Chaser, who recently died, had learned more than 1,000 nouns.
The moving force behind the challenge is Claudia Fugazza, a canine behavior researcher who is part of the Family Dog Project at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. And the sponsor is, of course, Purina.
Dr. Fugazza admits that the title of the contest and the promotion of the event as a way to find “the world’s smartest dog” are for fun. Learning the names of many, many objects is one intriguing and puzzling talent. Scientists don’t know how it is related to the ability of a street dog in Mumbai to find food, stay safe and reproduce, or the way a beloved Maltese can exact royal treatment from its owner.
Dr. Fugazza became interested in this ability after running tests on Whisky, a Border collie in Norway, who has now learned more than 100 names of toys without any special training. Whisky will be part of the challenge as will dogs from Spain, Brazil, Hungary, Florida and the Netherlands. They are all Border collies although Dr. Fugazza says other breeds are capable of similar accomplishments.
Still, most dogs can’t accomplish such feats even with extensive training, she said, and her scientific interest is in studying more dogs to attempt to understand the nature of this ability. Even in humans, she said, genius is poorly understood, and its origins controversial, but in animals, it has not been recognized at all.
“We don’t know the origins of this exceptional performance. And we think that dogs are an extremely good model for studying this,” she said.
And why stream it live? To look for new subjects. The more dogs studied, the better the science. “We hope to reach a broad audience because we think that there might be other such dogs,” Dr. Fugazza said and she hoped their owners would want them to be studied as well.
So if your dog knows the difference, by name, between one leash and another, you should definitely watch the contest. For the rest of us, who have enough trouble remembering where any leash is when we need it, this could be a glimpse of another world. Be prepared, however, this will be science, not the Puppy Bowl.
Also, as smart as they may be, the contestants will not be called on to give either victory or concession speeches, or even to know that what they think is a game is actually an experiment and contest. They are dogs, after all.