BOY! THOSE Human Scientists are clever, aren’t they? Even if they are a bit slow on the uptake. They’ve just gone and have proved what dog owners have known for centuries: their dogs – like me that is - really can understand almost everything they say.
In a study published in Science magazine – you know, the glossy one with the long names and funny photos - researchers have discovered a Border Collie with a vocabulary of 200 words and the ability to pick up the meaning of new words on first hearing. (Although personally I think a Golden Retriever would have been just as good) They’ve said that findings will ‘reignite the debate about the nature of language’. Say what?
Anyway, this Border Collie. Turns out he’s nine years old and called Rico and – surprise surprise - he lives with his owners (in Dortmund, Germany), and most of the words he understands are the names of toys. When his owners say "Rico, where is the banana?" - or panda, blue dinosaur, tiger, camel, werewolf – he goes and searches, out of sight of the owner, until he finds it. Personally, I think he takes his time just to make them think that he’s putting some actual effort into it.
Rico first began fetching objects when he was 10 months old. His owner, Susanne Baus, would place three different toys in different locations around the flat and ask the dog to retrieve one. He got a reward of food or play (which’d work for me!) and soon developed an impressive word count.
So a top boffin, Dr Julia Fischer and colleagues from the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig decided to put him to the test. In a series of controlled experiments, he correctly retrieved 37 out of 40 toys from a collection when its name was called. The scientists estimated that Rico's vocabulary was comparable with language-trained chimpanzees, sea lions, dolphins and parrots. Well, come on – chimpanzees? That’s pushing it a bit – they’re 98.9% human anyway!
They then tested Rico's ability to learn new words, placing seven well-known toys in a room with one that he’d never seen before. His owner then asked him to fetch the toy using an unfamiliar word. Seven times out of 10 he brought back the correct toy. A month later, the dog correctly remembered the name of the new toy in three out of six sessions.
The ability to realise that new words tend to refer to unfamiliar objects is called ‘fast mapping’ and is used by children as they develop their language. One of the scientists said: "This retrieval rate is comparable to the performance of three-year-old toddlers." Not sure if we should be insulted by that or not!
Border Collies are among the brightest breeds (hmm, well, s’pose so, they get good PR). Bred to work on farms, they have a particularly good grasp of spoken words. But the scientists believe they have shown something more than the intelligence of the breed, saying that seemingly complex language skills only seen before in children appear to be found in other species.
Dr Fischer said: "These experiments demonstrate that Rico reliably associates arbitrary acoustic patterns human words with specific items in his environment. Apparently, Rico's extensive experience with acquiring the names of objects allowed him to establish the rule that things can have names."
Well duuuh! Of course we know that!
Another top scientist, Dr Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University in Connecticut and an expert on how people learn the meaning of words, said not even chimpanzees had demonstrated such ‘fast-mapping’ abilities (well, can you expect them to? They’re 98.9% human for goodness’ sake!). "For psychologists, dogs may be the new chimpanzees," he said. Cheeky!
"Perhaps Rico is doing precisely what a child does, just not as well. Rico's limitations might reflect differences in degree, not in kind."
Jim Collins, the secretary of the Border Collie Club of Great Britain, has 11 dogs at his home in Stockport, Cheshire. "I'm not surprised at all," he said. "Our oldest is seven years old and he has a vocabulary of 50 words. They are fascinating dogs. They can do things that ordinary dogs can't."
He’s pushing his luck, isn’t he? He’s going to get slobbered on, making remarks like that!
Anyway, that nice Dr Bloom says that a child's understanding of language could include abstract concepts. "Rico's abilities are fascinating, but until we have answers to these sorts of questions, it is too early to give up on the view that babies learn words and dogs do not," he said.
I can do abstract concepts! What came first - the bone or the dog? Ah, now, then, think about that one!
As for talking, well, it’s simple innit? We dogs only do it to make you humans understand us better. Perchance the chronological apogee of my perambulatory constitutional approaches...
What’s that? Don’t understand! It’s time for me walk!