Man's best friend might be even smarter than we thought, judging by one clever border collie, scientists say. Researchers at Germany 's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology flipped on the TV one day to see Rico, a 9 year old border collie, competing on a European game show. Impressed by the dog's grasp of language, the scientists brought him in for tests. They found that Rico has a learning ability thought unique to children. Children learn perhaps 10 words a day with just one exposure, a “fast-mapping” ability responsible for the breadth of vocabularies. “The novel thing is that Rio also shows fast mapping, reasoning and memory,” biologist Julia Fischer, says.
Shown a toy once, Rico learns its name and can, on command, retrieve it a month later with a reliability “comparable to the performance of 3 year old toddlers,” Fischer's team says in today's journal.
Asked to fetch an item he had never heard of from an assortment of known toys, Rico returned with the novel item in seven out of 10 tests. Trained to retrieve since age 10 months, Rico knows 260 words for his toys, researchers say. They include panda and tiger.
Because Rico lives with a German family, he understands a few tongue-twisters, such as weihnachtsmann ( a red doll) and sirikid ( a white bunny).
“We know dogs are clever but this is the first time one has been tested with human psychology techniques and delivered interesting results,” says canine expert Claudio Sillero of the United Kingdom 's Oxford University who was not on Fischer's team.
Rico's word knowledge is comparable to that of trained apes, dolphins, sea lions and parrots. Such quickness to learn a word eludes chimps, thought to be man's closest relative. Cautious scientists say other dogs must be tested to see whether Rico is a canine Einstein or merely a particularly enthusiastic fetching aficionado.
By Dan Vergano
Arizona Republic June 11, 2004