Meet New Jersey’s Genius Dog

Bow-wow! A border collie mix from Rumson can correctly identify nearly 200 toys.

Border collie mix dog surrounded by colorful toys, which she can correctly identify.
Shira sits surrounded by 100 toys—all of which she can correctly identify. Photo: Courtesy of Trés Hanley-Millman

When Trés Hanley-Millman and Paul Millman adopted their rescue dog, Shira, in 2017, she was small and sickly, the runt of the litter.

After nursing the border collie mix back to health, the Rumson couple noticed that she could understand language; when told to fetch, say, the cat toy, or the spider, she would retrieve the right one. Still, they didn’t think much of it. “A lot of dogs do that,” says Hanley-Millman.

In late 2022, after seeing some videos on Instagram of the “Genius Dog Challenge,” Hanley-Millman posted a video of Shira fetching toys and was contacted by researchers at a Budapest university.

Border collie mix wears a graduation cap

Shira is known as a gifted word learner. Photo: Courtesy of Trés Hanley-Millman

The team was studying gifted word learners—dogs with a strong receptive vocabulary and the ability to associate a verbal label with an object. (This differs from the ability of most dogs to learn a task.) Shira, who could identify 25 toys, was part of a study of 41 dogs from nine countries, published by Scientific Reports in 2023. Seventeen were from the United States; Shira was the only one from New Jersey.

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Shira can now identify almost 200 toys. During training sessions, Hanley-Millman asks her to retrieve a specific toy from a pile of 20 to 30; when her owner adds a new toy, it only takes Shira a few minutes to learn it.

“It’s incredible to watch. You just think, How do they do it?” Hanley-Millman says. “There’s nothing wrong with rescues. Some of them even turn out to be extraordinary.”

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