For people, being on a game show quite possibly means fifteen minutes of fame, along with the chance to win money. However, for Rico, a twelve year old border collie from Germany, his performance on a European game show caught the eye of many scientists eager to test his amazing vocabulary. Rico may be the “Einstein” of the dog world with a vocabulary of over 200 words that he has learned to associate with objects that include his collection of children’s toys, balls, and stuffed animals. However, it is possible that his ability is characteristic of dogs in general, since researchers believe most dogs can understand around 200 words.
After seeing Rico on TV, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology brought in him and his owner to observe his behavior. This type of research helps scientists learn more about the evolution of communication in humans and other animals. To test his ability to recognize objects, the scientists had Rico’s owner call out an object for him to retrieve. He correctly retrieved the appropriate toy 37 out of 40 times.
To go one step further, the researchers wanted to see just how Rico was learning the names of new objects. They would put a new object in a group of recognized objects. Then they had his owner call out the name of the new object. Rico would sniff and nudge the objects, carefully selecting the unknown object. He correctly retrieved the new object 7 out of 10 times. These tests showed that Rico can do simple logic, using his prior knowledge of his toys. It also shows that he is thinking about which object he should pick up.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Rico’s abilities is that he can remember the name of the object 3 out of 6 times a month later, even if it has only been introduced once. This behavior is called “Fast Mapping,” which means that he could identify the unknown toy out of other known objects and learn to associate it with a sound (or word). According to the scientists, Rico’s learning capability is equivalent to a three-year old child, minus the ability to speak. Evolutionarily speaking, this means that the ability to link meaning to sounds, probably came before the ability to talk in humans.
Border collies in general are considered the most intelligent of all dogs. They are often kept as work dogs that live closely with humans, where there close interactions with people have helped them learn to understand human language and become good at reading body language. Rico may be a special case because his owners started to teach him the names of toys when he was only 10 months old as a means to stimulate him while he was ill and unable to play outside. Although his vocabulary is comparable to other language trained animals like chimpanzees and sea lions, Rico’s ability to understand syntax (more than the phrase “fetch the ___”) remains to be tested. Perhaps dogs and other mammals have the capacity to speak but are not being understood. Other research has shown that dogs laugh, mice sing courtship songs, primates can learn sign language, and more. The bottom line is that humans are not the only animals with the capacity for language.
Sources: Washington Post and www.bordercollierescue.org