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AP: Research Finds Dogs Understand Language


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Research Finds Dogs Understand Language

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - As many a dog owner will attest, our furry friends are listening. Now, for the doubters, there is scientific proof they understand much of what they hear.


Rico, a dog with a 'vocabulary' of nearly 200 words, can learn the names of unfamiliar toys after just one exposure to the new word-toy combination. (AP Photo/Susanne Baus, Science)

German researchers have found a border collie named Rico who understands more than 200 words and can learn new ones as quickly as many children.

Patti Strand, an American Kennel Club board member, called the report "good news for those of us who talk to our dogs."

"Like parents of toddlers, we learned long ago the importance of spelling key words like bath, pill or vet when speaking in front of our dogs," Strand said. "Thanks to the researchers who've proven that people who talk to their dogs are cutting-edge communicators, not just a bunch of eccentrics."

The researchers found that Rico knows the names of dozens of play toys and can find the one called for by his owner. That is a vocabulary size about the same as apes, dolphins and parrots trained to understand words, the researchers say.

Rico can even take the next step, figuring out what a new word means.

The researchers put several known toys in a room along with one that Rico had not seen before. From a different room, Rico's owner asked him to fetch a toy, using a name for the toy the dog had never heard.

The border collie, a breed known primarily for its herding ability, was able to go to the room with the toys and, seven times out of 10, bring back the one he had not seen before. The dog seemingly understood that because he knew the names of all the other toys, the new one must be the one with the unfamiliar name.

"Apparently he was able to link the novel word to the novel item based on exclusion learning, either because he knew that the familiar items already had names or because they were not novel," said the researchers, led by Julia Fischer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

A month later, he still remembered the name of that new toy three out of six times, even without having seen it since that first test. That is a rate the scientists said was equivalent to that of a 3-year-old.

Rico's learning ability may indicate that some parts of speech comprehension developed separately from human speech, the scientists said.

"You don't have to be able to talk to understand a lot," Fischer said. The team noted that dogs have evolved with humans and have been selected for their ability to respond to the communications of people.

Katrina Kelner, Science's deputy editor for life sciences, said "such fast, one-trial learning in dogs is remarkable. This ability suggests that the brain structures that support this kind of learning are not unique to humans and may have formed the evolutionary basis of some of the advanced language abilities of humans."

Perhaps, although Paul Bloom of Yale University urges caution.

"Children can understand words used in a range of contexts. Rico's understanding is manifested in his fetching behavior," Bloom writes in a commentary, also in Science.

Bloom calls for further experiments to answer several questions: Can Rico learn a word for something other than a small object to be fetched? Can he display knowledge of a word in some way other than fetching? Can he follow an instruction not to fetch something?

Fischer and her colleagues are still working with Rico to see if he can understand requests to put toys in boxes or to bring them to certain people. Rico was born in December 1994 and lives with his owners. He was tested at home.

Funding for this research was provided in part by the German Research Foundation.


On the Net:

Science: http://www.sciencemag.org

German Research Foundation: http://www.dfg.de/en/index.html

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology: http://www.eva.mpg.de

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and here's the Reuters article:


Can Dogs Speak? No, But They Understand, Study Says

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 on Thursday.

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, they report.

Fast-mapping allows a child to form quick and rough hypotheses about the meaning of a new word the first time they hear or see it.

"(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 upon request," Julia Fischer of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and colleagues 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.

Fischer and colleagues set up experiments to test the dog, and are satisfied that he understands the words.

"For instance, he can be instructed to put them into a box or to bring them to a certain person," they wrote.


"Rico's 'vocabulary size' is comparable to that of language-trained apes, dolphins, sea lions and parrots."

When they put a new object into a room filled with old objects, Rico was able to fetch it 7 out of 10 times, evidently figuring out that the new word must refer to the new object.

Four weeks later, he apparently remembered this new word about half the time. "This retrieval rate is comparable to the performance of 3-year-old toddlers," they wrote.

"Undoubtedly, he is a highly motivated dog," they noted, adding that border collies are bred to respond to human commands.

But, they added, "our results strongly support the view that a seemingly complex human linguistic skill previously described only in human children may be mediated by simpler cognitive building blocks that are also present in another species."

Obviously, they 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."

Psychologist Paul Bloom of Yale University in Connecticut, an expert in how people learn the meaning of words, said not even chimpanzees have demonstrated such "fast-mapping" abilities.

"Perhaps Rico is doing precisely what a child does, just not as well," Bloom wrote in a commentary. "Rico's limitations might reflect differences in degree, not in kind."

But Bloom also noted that a child's understanding of language can include abstract concepts.

"When children learn a word such as 'sock,' they do not interpret it as 'bring-the-sock' or 'go-to-the-sock,' and they do not merely associate it with socks," he said.

"Can Rico follow an instruction not to fetch an item, just as one can tell a child not to touch something? 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."

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Originally posted by monkey66

So what word can I teach my dog so he stops eating the cat sh!t out of the litter box??

"No!" Followed by... "good boy" when he does what you want.

If that fails I suggest you throw out your cat.

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