A new study found that dogs form a “multi-model mental image” of their toys.

Specific breeds of dogs, like border collies, can learn the verbal names of their favorite toys, but what is going on in the dog’s mind when it’s told to fetch a given toy? According to a recent paper published in the journal Animal Cognition, these dogs store key sensory features about their toys—notably what they look like and how they smell—and recall those features when searching for the named toy.

“If we can understand which senses dogs use while searching for a toy, this may reveal how they think about it,” said co-author Shany Dror, a biologist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary. “When dogs use olfaction or sight while searching for a toy, this indicates that they know how that toy smells or looks like.”

Prior studies suggested that dogs typically rely on vision, or a combination of sight and smell, to locate target objects. Few dogs can also identify objects based on verbal labels, which the authors call “gifted word learner” (GWL) dogs. “Just like humans, GWL dogs not only recognize the labeled objects—or categories of objects—as stimuli they have already encountered, but they also identify them among other similarly familiar named objects, based on their verbal labels,” the authors wrote. They wanted to investigate whether GWL dogs have an enhanced ability to discriminate and/or recognize objects compared to typical dogs.

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