clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

German dog's a real whiz

Rico, a 9-year-old border collie, appears to learn like a human child and has a good memory.
Rico, a 9-year-old border collie, appears to learn like a human child and has a good memory.
Fritz Reiss, Associated Press

Reports from owners notwithstanding, scientists have yet to discover a dog that can talk. German researchers, however, say they have found one that listens and learns like a human child.

In a report being published Friday in the journal Science, the researchers say a 9-year-old border collie named Rico was able to learn the name of a new object in one try, by a process of elimination. Told to fetch an unfamiliar object with a name he had not heard before, Rico picked out the novel item from a group of familiar ones.

Even more important, Rico proved in other tests four weeks later that he remembered what he had learned, said Julia Fischer, an author of the report who is a senior research fellow in the evolution of communication at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

She said Rico was displaying a kind of learning by inference that is called fast mapping. It was thought to be a language-learning ability specific to humans, but Rico's ability suggests it is more widespread.

Rico was not picked at random for the study. Television audiences in Germany knew his abilities long before scientists started working with him. In fact, Fischer said, it was Rico's performance retrieving a variety of objects on a popular game show, "Wetten, Dass?" (roughly "Want to Bet?"), that brought him to her attention.

The owners say the dog knows the names of 200 objects. The scientists did not test this claim but said anecdotal evidence supported it.

Border collies are known for their intelligence and intensity. Warren Mick, a border collie owner and trainer in upstate New York who is president of the Northeast Border Collie Association, said, "I've had dogs that could pick up something with one experience." He also said he had no doubt the dogs learned specific words.

In a commentary accompanying the Science article, Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale, wrote that the proper scientific controls were used in the experiment to avoid the possibility of cues from the owner other than the command. Such hidden cues have invalidated other seemingly impressive animal achievements, most famously those of a horse known as Clever Hans who was said to have done arithmetic but was actually responding to unconscious cues from his owners.

Bloom added that without further experimentation, it was unclear that Rico's performance was related to the way children learn words. "It is too early to give up on the view that babies learn words and dogs do not," he concluded.

Fischer said the conclusions in the report were limited to Rico and could not be extrapolated to other border collies, or dogs in general, until more research was done. Rico might be a special case among dogs, she said, adding, "Maybe he's Albert Einstein."