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Further Reading

"Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence for 'Fast Mapping.'" Juliane Kaminski, Josep Call and Julia Fischer. Science, June 11, 2004, page 1682.

"Can a Dog Learn a Word?" Paul Bloom. Science, June 11, 2004, page 1605

 Dog Behavior Library

Border Collie Learns 200 Words

The Associated Press
Updated: 3:58 p.m. ET June 10, 2004

WASHINGTON - As many a dog owner will attest, our furry friends are listening. Now, for the doubters, there is scientific proof they understand much of what they hear.

German researchers have found a border collie named Rico who understands more than 200 words and can learn new ones as quickly as many children. 


Canine Einstein: Rico the nine year-old family-owned pet border collie reputed to have a vocabulary of over 200 words.
Border collie Rico, who can fetch at least 200 objects by name, retrieves a Pokemon toy June 10 in Berlin. Rico can figure out which objects his owner wants even if he has never heard the word before.   

Patti Strand, an American Kennel Club board member, called the report "good news for those of us who talk to our dogs."

"Like parents of toddlers, we learned long ago the importance of spelling key words like bath, pill or vet when speaking in front of our dogs," Strand said. "Thanks to the researchers who've proven that people who talk to their dogs are cutting-edge communicators, not just a bunch of eccentrics."                      

The researchers found that Rico knows the names of dozens of play toys and can find the one called for by his owner. That is a vocabulary size about the same as apes, dolphins and parrots trained to understand words, the researchers say.

Rico can learn the names of unfamiliar toys after just one exposure to the new word-toy combination.

Rico can even take the next step, figuring out what a new  word means.

Equivalent to toddler
The researchers put several known toys in a room along with one that Rico had not seen before. From a different room, Rico's owner asked him to fetch a toy, using a name for the toy the dog had never heard.

When you teach your dog a new word, make sure "one word means one thing."  For example, don't say, "down" when your dog jumps on you if you are also teaching your dog that "down" means to lie down on the ground.

The border collie, a breed known primarily for its herding ability, was able to go to the room with the toys and, seven times out of 10, bring back the one he had not seen before. The dog seemingly understood that because he knew the names of all the other toys, the new one must be the one with the unfamiliar name.

Comparative Cognitive Function

All such research contributes to a better understanding of the true communication and cognition abilities of animals, and how these may have formed the evolutionary precursors of human language.

If nothing else, the experiments with Rico the border collie "might signal the emergence of a vibrant area of comparative cognition research," writes Bloom in his commentary. "For psychologists, dogs may be the new chimpanzees.

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