Rico's Rich Vocabulary

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
July 14, 2004

Rico, who is approximately 16-inches tall and lives in Germany, knows all the names of his 200 or so toys and balls. Ask him to "get the panda," and he'll happily run and get it for you. When asked, he will also bring you his little red doll or blue dinosaur. Rico is so talented that he's been on TV, which is how researchers learned of him. Julia Fischer and other psychologists at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, asked to study him in action. They set up experiments in his house, to test how many words he really knew.

Photo credit: Susanne Baus/Science
Not bad for a dog. Rico is a border collie. About nine years ago when Rico was 10 months old, his owners started training him to learn the names of his toys. Now he recognizes the names of more than 200 objects. This vocabulary is similar to "language-trained apes, dolphins, sea lions and parrots," the researchers say.

Testing Word Recognition

Photo credit: Science
The researchers designed their experiments to make sure that Rico's owners were not providing non-verbal cues (that is, directing the dog to certain toys with their eye movements or with body language). The owners were placed in a nearby room, where Rico could hear their commands but not see them or the researchers. Rico's collection of 200 toys and balls were divided into 20 sets of 10 items each. A researcher placed one set (10 different items) in a room. The names of two of the items were randomly selected. One of Rico's owners would call out the items' names, one after the other. Rico retrieved the correct items 37 out of 40 times.

Testing Word Learning ("Fast Mapping"*)

* Quickly guessing a word's approximate meaning is referred to as "fast mapping." This ability has yet to be demonstrated in nonhuman primates such as chimpanzees. Not only does Rico recognize words, but it seems that he can learn a new word the first time he hears the word. The researchers placed a novel object (one Rico had never seen) with seven familiar objects. When told to fetch the new item, Rico figured it out seven out of 10 times. In humans, the ability to identify a new object by the process of elimination develops around the age of three years.

The author's dog, Tali
Photo credit: Ellen Kuwana
Furthermore, when tested a month later, Rico still remembered the novel items' names. The scientists put the novel item in with 8 other items, half novel and half familiar. Three out of six times, Rico correctly remembered the new word (as demonstrated by retrieving the correct item).

The next step for Rico and the researchers is to try to figure out how much of phrases he understands. For example, he can be instructed to put a certain toy in a box, or bring a certain ball to a person.

This research sheds light on how language is learned. In dogs at least, language production (talking) is separate from language comprehension (understanding). "You don't have to be able to talk to understand a lot," says Fischer.

Did you know?

The author's dog, Tali
Photo credit: Ellen Kuwana

  • English-speaking children who are two years or older learn about 10 new words a day. By 18 years, they have a vocabulary of approximately 60,000 words. (Source: "How Children Learn the Meaning of Words," by Paul Bloom, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., 2000.)

  • Border collies are classified as working dogs, based on their history of herding animals. Sheepherders use whistles or voice commands when they work with the dogs. Border collies are active dogs that need 4-5 hours of attention each day and lots of exercise.

References and Further Information:

  1. Science for Kids Stories (see Archive for "A Dog's 'Vocabulary'")
  2. Press Release, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
  3. "Old dog learns new tricks," by Helen R. Pilcher, Nature, June 11, 2004.
  4. "Fido Found to Be a Wiz with Words," Scientific American, June 11, 2004.
  5. Kaminski, J., Call, J. and Fischer, J. "Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence for 'Fast Mapping,'" Science, 304:1682-1683, 2004.

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