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Brainy Border Collie Knows 200 Words

By Kate Ruder


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Dogs

Rico, 9 years old, can learn the names of new toys and remember them for weeks.
A border collie from Germany named Rico has proven what many pet owners intuitively know—dogs can be exceptionally smart.

Rico has a vocabulary of more than 200 words, and has demonstrated that he can learn the names of new toys easily, and remember the names weeks later.

These findings from a new study suggest that some basics of language and learning may be innate to dogs and other animals, and may have evolved independent of humans. Julia Fischer of Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, led the study, published online today in Science.

The collie’s vocabulary is on par with other trained animals like apes, dolphins, sea lions, and parrots. He correctly retrieved 37 of 40 randomly chosen toys from his collection of 200 toys. Rico can fetch toys that have either German names, such as Zitrone (lemon) and Kaninchen (bunny), or English names, such as Big Mac, Seahorse, and Mr. Green.

Most impressive is Rico’s deftness in learning the names of new toys. When the researchers placed a new toy among his familiar toys and asked him to retrieve it using a word he’d never heard before, Rico usually retrieved the new toy. Later, after not seeing the new toy for a month, he successfully retrieved it half the time.

“Four weeks later, he had actually integrated the word into his vocabulary without instruction,” says Fischer.

Toddlers learn words in a similar way—a technique that scientists call “fast mapping.”

It’s not Rico’s first time in the spotlight. Rico appeared on the popular European game show “Wetten das?” and successfully fetched various toys from his collection to the delight of television audiences.

Among the millions of viewers who saw Rico on television that night was Fischer, and she later asked permission to test Rico.

Fischer was skeptical that the owners might be unconsciously giving Rico subtle cues to retrieve the correct item, a phenomenon known as the “Clever Hans” effect.

Clever Hans was a horse famous in the early 1900s for doing calculus by tapping answers to equations with his hoof. Later, the psychologist Oskar Pfungst discovered that Clever Hans’ owner did the math and then gave the horse a raised eyebrow, or nod, to stop when he reached the correct number of taps.

To control the experiments for Rico, Fischer had the dog and his owner sit in a separate room while she arranged random toys on the floor. Then she would join dog and owner and have the owner tell Rico to fetch specific items in the next room. It worked!

Rico is part genius dog and part extremely motivated pet, says Fischer, adding that the findings probably do not apply to the average dog.

Border collies are famous for their smarts. Traditionally used as herding dogs, collies need plenty of intellectual activity and exercise. Rico’s owners started training him to learn the names of toys when he was sick at 10-months old and could not leave the house. He is now a healthy 9-year-old.

Do genes play a role in Rico’s talents?

“We just don’t know,” says Fischer. “But if you think his abilities have something to do with the breed, then there is probably some kind of underlying genetics.”

Kaminski, J. et al. Word learning in a domestic dog: Evidence for “fast-mapping.” Science 304, 1682-1683 (June 11, 2004).

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