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Border Collie Rescue - On Line - Rico, A Breed Above ?

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Well, now it's Official - at least according to one Scientific establishment. Our Border Collies understand the meaning of a lot of what we say to them and, as has been said for years by professional dog trainers, behaviorists and rescue staff all over the country -  some of them may indeed, be more intelligent than their owners.

Researchers have been working with a Border Collie dog who possesses a vocabulary of over 200 words and seems to show the ability to pick up or work out the meaning of new words on first hearing. The findings are expected to open up a new international debate on the nature of languages.

Rico is a 9 year old Border Collie from Dortmund, Germany. His owners started to teach him the names of toys and various everyday items at the age of 10 months in order to keep him stimulated while he was ill and unable to go out and exercise. Games were developed based on retrieving toys from a box or locations in other rooms. Most of the words he understands are the names of toys.

According to his owners, Rico rapidly developed an expanding vocabulary which now exceeded 200 words, and has demonstrated that he can learn the names of new toys easily - and remember their names many weeks later, even if he had not seen them in the intervening period. Impressed by the dog's apparent understanding of language, scientists have taken him in for tests.

The research was led by biologist Dr. Julia Fischer and carried out by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology  in Leipzig, Germany, after the dog had first come to their attention when it was seen by scientists on TV; competing on a European game show “Wetten das?”, where he was entrancing audiences by retrieving a variety of toys from his huge collection on the instructions of his owner, Susanne Baus.

“You don’t have to be able to talk to understand a lot,” Dr. 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.

In a series of controlled experiments at the Institute, he correctly retrieved 37 out of 40 toys from a collection when its name was called. To control the experiments for Rico, Fischer had the dog and his owner sit in a separate room while she arranged random toys on the floor. Then she would join dog and owner and have the owner tell Rico to fetch specific items in the next room. It worked! Rico is part genius dog and part extremely motivated pet, says Fischer, adding that the findings probably do not apply to the average dog. The scientists also asked the dog, separated from his owner, to retrieve items both familiar and unfamiliar. "We quickly established he does know what these toys are" said Professor Fischer. She continued, "The novel thing is that Rico also shows fast mapping, reasoning and memory"  

They found that Rico has a learning ability thought to be unique to children. Children learn perhaps 10 words a day with just one exposure. This ability to realise that new words tend to refer to unfamiliar objects is called "fast mapping" and is used by children as they develop the breadth of vocabularies they will need to understand human language. Shown a toy once, Rico learns its name and can, on command, retrieve it from a distant room a month later with a reliability "comparable to the performance of 3-year-old toddlers" said Professor Fischer. 

This shows that Rico has a vocabulary size about the same as apes, dolphins and parrots trained to understand words, the researchers say. Such quickness to learn a word eludes chimpanzees, thought to be man's closest relative. Rico has also learned his commands in German and English.

When asked if Genes may genes play a role in Rico’s talents, Professor Fischer replied, “We just don't know, but if you think his abilities have something to do with the breed, then there is probably some kind of underlying genetics.” Working-breed dogs such as Rico can make terrible house pets, Fischer warns. "He is a workaholic who has been bred to retrieve and respond to commands. Families would be better off with a dog who likes to sleep around the house while they are working, instead of tearing it apart."

The German team warned people impressed with Rico's abilities not to rush into buying a Border collie. "They are working dogs," the team said. "They are high-maintenance, professional dogs that need at least four or five hours of attention a day."

"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.

Fischer's team reports in the 11/6/2004 edition of the journal Science. 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."
Dr Paul Bloom, a psychologist, and an expert on how people learn the meaning of words, at Yale University in Connecticut urges caution." Perhaps Rico is doing precisely what a child does, just not as well," he added. "Rico's limitations might reflect differences in degree, not in kind." 
"For psychologists, dogs may be the new chimpanzees," he said, adding that not even chimpanzees had demonstrated such "fast-mapping" abilities.
"Children can understand words used in a range of contexts. Rico's understanding is manifested in his fetching behavior," Mr. Bloom writes in a commentary, also in Science. Mr. 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?
But Dr Bloom also noted 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.
Border collies are among the brightest breeds. 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.
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. The scientists agree that other dogs must be tested to see whether Rico is a canine Einstein or just an enthusiastic retriever. Funding for this research was provided in part by the German Research Foundation.

You can access the teams report at - www.sciencemag.org

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