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A dog's 'vocabulary'

Rico, a dog with an approximately 200-word "vocabulary," can learn the names of unfamiliar toys after just one exposure to the new word-toy combination. Image courtesy of Susanne Baus.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Rico, a German family's Border collie, can learn the names of toys the first time he encounters them. A month later Rico remembers the names of some of the toys even though he hasn't seen or heard about them in the meantime. This new research may add scientific muscle to dog owners' claims their pets understand conversations and learn new words quickly.

The scientists focused their experiments on a specific kind of rapid word learning that allows children to form quick and rough ideas about the meaning of a new word after a single exposure. This special kind of learning is called "fast mapping."

Rico's retrieval rate is comparable to the performance of three-year-old toddlers, according to the authors in the 11 June 2004 issue of the journal Science. Image courtesy of Susanne Baus.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

These findings appear in the 11 June, 2004 issue of the journal Science.

The scientists tested Rico in his own house. At the start of each trial, Rico's owner would say, "Rico! Wo ist der" and then add the name of a toy.

"Wo ist der…" is German for "Where is the…".

Different ways to interpret a command. When Rico, a Border collie, is requested by his owner to fetch a sock, he might understand her in the same way a child would. That is, Rico might appreciate that the word "sock" refers to a category of objects in the world and that the rest of the command means that he should act in a particular way (fetching) toward a member of that category. Alternatively, he might not understand reference at all, and might be limited to associating the word spoken by his owner with a specific behavior such as approaching a sock or fetching a sock. Image © Science.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

After hearing the question, Rico searched nearby rooms until he found the requested toy. Depending on the experiment, he had to choose from toys he already knew the name for, or from both familiar and unfamiliar toys. Occasionally he returned with the wrong one.

The authors do not claim that Rico and children have an equally rich understanding of words. They do show, however, that Rico can make the link between objects and sounds.

"This is a crucial step that allows an animal to figure things out in the environment," explained Science author Julia Fischer from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Fisher's team is now investigating Rico's ability to understand entire phrases, such as requests for Rico to put toys in boxes, or to bring them to certain people.

Fischer noted that people should not take this study as a reason to go out and get a Border collie as a novelty.

"Border collies are working dogs," Fischer said. "If they were humans, we'd call them workaholics. They are high-maintenance, professional dogs that need at least four or five hours of attention a day."


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