Clever collie proves canines may really understand words

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June 11, 2004

Washington: A clever border collie that can fetch at least 200 objects by name may be living proof that dogs truly understand human language, German scientists reported yesterday.

Rico can figure out which object his master wants even if he has never heard the word before, the researchers say.

The findings, reported in the journal Science, may not surprise many dog owners.

But they are certain to re-ignite a debate over what language is and whether it is unique to humans.

Rico's abilities seem to follow a process called fast mapping, seen when young children start to learn to speak and understand language, the scientists report.

"(Rico) lives as a pet with his owners and was reported by them to know the labels of more than 200 items, mostly children's toys and balls, which he correctly retrieved on request," Julia Fischer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig wrote.

His owners say "Rico, wo ist der (where is the) Banane (banana)" or "BigMac" or "Panda", and the dog searches, out of sight of the owner, until he finds the object.

"Rico's 'vocabulary size' is comparable to that of language-trained apes, dolphins, sea lions and parrots," Fischer wrote, while his retrieval rate is comparable to the performance of three-year-old toddlers.

Obviously, the scientists said, children have a deeper and broader understanding of words.

But it could be that some of the mechanisms underlying language evolved "before early humans were ready to talk". - Reuters


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