Scientists from University of Portsmouth on hunt for clever pooches to take part in pioneering study

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Scientists are looking for clever pooches to take part in a pioneering study to establish how dogs understand symbols.

The University of Portsmouth’s Dog Cognition Centre has been on a quest to find the UK’s smartest pooch for several years now. As part of their ongoing research, they are beginning a new study exploring how dogs learn sound symbolism and begin associating words with objects.

Dr Kaminski’s pioneering research into dog cognition began with one exceptionally gifted border collie, named Rico. Over 20 years ago, Dr Kaminski devised a test which showed he could label 200 items and could recall words for weeks after being taught them. The study, published in Science in 2004, was the first of its kind. This ability is broadly comparable to language-trained apes, dolphins, sea lions, and parrots.

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Dr Juliane Kaminski, director of the centre which sits within the University’s Department of Psychology, said: “To participate in the study, a dog must recognise more than 20 objects by name, ideally toys.

“This project will help us with our investigation into what fuels this unique talent. But to have effective results we need a large sample of pets, so we need the public’s help.” 

©Susanne Baus

Rico went on to inspire a citizen-science project, Finding Rico, which was launched in 2021 with the goal of locating and studying other intelligent dogs. 

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The latest study will be led by Dr Leanne Proops, associate professor in animal behaviour and welfare at the University of Portsmouth. She said: “We’re really keen to hear from anyone in the UK who thinks their dog meets the criteria. These special dogs will be helping us with an exciting new project that will help us to understand how human language evolved.”

Since then, hundreds of dogs have taken part in games and been given tasks to solve to better understand how they interact with their environment, other dogs or people.

The research carried out at the centre is strictly observational, and there are no invasive methods of any kind. Dogs are also always rewarded with food or play for completing their tasks and games.

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In one study, the team discovered dogs have evolved new muscles around the eyes to better communicate with humans. Dr Kaminski’s research showed dogs moved their eyebrows significantly more when humans were looking at them. The hypothesis being that these  ‘puppy dog eyes’ trigger a nurturing response in humans.

The team has also mapped the facial movements of dogs, naming the movement responsible for a raised inner eyebrow the Action Unit (AU) 101.

Dr Kaminski added: “We are always on the lookout for dogs and their owners to join our dog register.

“All you have to do is answer a couple of questions with their name, age, gender, if they’re toy-motivated, or food-motivated etc. While we mainly seek out people who are close-by and can travel to our centre in Portsmouth, we’re also open to owners further away as we have online surveys too.”

Anyone interested in taking part in the latest study can contact Dr Kaminski via email on [email protected].

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