Smart Dog Knows 200 Words

Rico the Border Collie: A Model for How Humans Learn Language?

The eyes of the dog give to him sometimes a more intelligent expression than that of his master, and there is no doubt that he uses them to very good advantage; but they are not our eyes.
-- Neurologist C. Judson Herrick

June 10, 2004 -- "My border collie," the bumper sticker reads, "is smarter than your honor student."

Well, maybe not. But scientists say that border collies -- and other clever dogs - are in some ways as smart as 3-year-old kids are. The findings come from a study of Rico, a German border collie that knows 200 words.

Rico's best trick: The first time he hears it, he learns the name of a new toy. That's something only humans were supposed to be able to do, note Julia Fischer, PhD, and colleagues at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

"You don't have to be able to talk to understand a lot," Fischer says in a news release. The findings appear in the June 11 issue of Science.

Fetch the Hard Way

Rico, now nearly 9 years old, started learning the names of things at the age of 10 months. His owners would show him a new toy, repeat the name -- Oscar, for example -- and then let him play with it. Later, they'd say to him, "Rico, where is the Oscar?" (or, in German, "Wo ist der Oscar?") and he would fetch the correct toy from another room.

Fischer's team put Rico to the test. The owner, in one room, asked Rico for 40 different toys. He got the right one 37 times. That puts dogs in an elite class.

"Rico's 'vocabulary size' is comparable to that of language-trained apes, dolphins, sea lions, and parrots," the researchers note.

Next, they tested Rico on his learning ability. The scientists put one new toy and seven of Rico's toys in a nearby room. Without ever teaching Rico the name of the new toy -- for example, a white bunny called "sirikid" -- they asked him for it. Rico figured out that the word didn't refer to any of his familiar toys, so he brought the new toy in seven out of 10 trials.

And perhaps even more remarkably, Rico remembered. Even though the new toy was hidden from him for a month, he was able to fetch it three out of six times.

"This retrieval rate is comparable to the performance of 3-year-old toddlers," Fischer and colleagues write. "Rico reliably associates ... human words with specific items in his environment. Apparently Rico's extensive experience with acquiring the names of objects allowed him to establish the rule that things can have names."

Do Dogs Hear Words Like Humans Do?

Rico's trick, Fischer and colleagues argue, shows he can do something language experts call "fast mapping." That is, he can learn words in just a single trial. Chimps can't do this.

"For psychologists, dogs may be the new chimpanzees," writes Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, PhD, in a Science editorial.

Humans aren't alone in some language skills, Fischer and colleagues conclude. They say Rico's ability shows that humans already had some basic language skills before they began to talk.

However, Bloom notes Rico may hear something quite different than we do when he hears a word.

When Rico hears the word "sock," does he think about socks, and then remember his toy sock, and then know that his master wants him to fetch it? Or is "bring the sock" the only way he understands "sock?"

"If any child learned words the way Rico did, the parents would run screaming to the nearest neurologist," Bloom writes. "Rico is 9 years old and knows about 200 words, whereas a human 9-year-old knows tens of thousands of words and is learning more than 10 new words a day."

Still, Bloom says, Rico may be learning the same way humans do -- just not as well.

Stay tuned: Fischer's team is working to find out just what Rico understands -- and how well he understands it.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Kaminski, J.Science, June 11, 2004; vol 304: pp 1682-1683. Bloom, P. Science, June 11, 2004; vol 304. News release, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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