How Smart Are Our Dogs, Really?



An article in The Arizona Republic recently talks about a dog named Rico who can learn and remember new words as quickly and easily as a young child. Children learn about 10 words a day with just one exposure to each word, according to an article which appeared in Science journal. This ability is referred to as "fast mapping" and is responsible for the speed and breadth of acquiring vocabulary in preschoolers.

Rico is a 9-year-old Border Collie living in Germany. He was first seen by scientists on a European game show. Amazed with his ability to understand and react to a great number of words, the scientists brought him into the lab for testing. They found that his ability with vocabulary resembled what they formerly thought was unique to children, the ability to absorb new words with ease. He also displayed reasoning and memory skills, a talent not previously credited to dogs.


Katie Aganowski, daughter of Lisa Murphy, Pine, works with Buddy, teaching him new commands.

Rico was shown a toy and told the name for that toy. A month later he would retrieve that named toy with the same reliability as a three-year-old child. Even more amazing, if asked to retrieve a toy that he had never been shown before, he would pick it out of a group of known toys seven out of 10 tests.

Rico's owners have been working with him on retrieving since he was 10 months old. He knows the names of 260 toys including panda and tiger. His language is German, so he understands such words as weihnachtsmann, which means a red doll, and sirikid, a white bunny.

Canine expert Claudio Sillero, of the United Kingdom's Oxford University, said "We know dogs are clever, but this is the first time one has been tested with human psychology techniques and delivered interesting results."

Rico's word knowledge is comparable to that of trained dolphins, sea lions and parrots, but far superior to chimps which are believed to be man's closest relatives. Other dogs will now be tested to find out if Rico is a "Canine Einstein" or simply a dog eager to learn and fortunate enough to have owners interested in providing a challenging environment.

The above story provides room for thought. In about 1800, there was the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron who was raised by a pack of wolves. Found as a young teen, he was brought into a scientific environment under the direction of Jean Itard to determine what kind of learning could take place with a child raised with no human contact and no language. I wrote a research paper on this years ago so the facts are vague, but the findings were to prove very dynamic in the education of mentally handicapped children. The ability to learn is based both on heredity and environment. No matter the basic intelligence, mental stimulation increases the ability to learn. Our prisons are full of very bright children who have had no mental stimulation.

Dogs react similarly and Border Collies and Jack Russell Terriers are excellent examples, being both bright and high energy. Everyone who owns one knows that you have to occupy their minds and provide physical activity. Without a "job" they can get into lots of trouble. That is why it is vitally important to match the dog to your lifestyle.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste no matter whom it belongs to. It is pathetic to observe the unchallenged mind of a child. Our dogs also are eager to learn. Certainly there are degrees of intelligence in dogs just as there are in people. Dogs who live without mental stimulation and then have offspring who are not stimulated, the intelligence will eventually be bred out of them I would think.

On the other hand, it is amazing what dogs can learn. In dog activities such as musical freestyle, agility, and herding, there are words for many actions and objects. Several words direct the dog to do an action to the right or left. That takes thinking.

I see how much my dogs know and how eager they are to learn. If I work with one, the other two wait impatiently for their turn. Imagine if we taught them one word a day.

A couple of safety cautions: It has been found that grapes and raisins are toxic to dogs and can cause kidney failure. If your dog gets into either of these foods, get him to the veterinarian immediately. Vomiting must be induced before the grapes are digested. Blood work can be done to determine the damage to the kidneys.

Also, as we bring new modern cleaning products into our homes, care should be taken with pets and children. The Swiffer Wetjet contains antifreeze. By walking on a newly cleaned floor and then licking his feet, the dog can ingest enough of the solution to cause liver failure. Read all labels carefully. Allow the floor to dry thoroughly before the dog walks on it and keep all food dishes and food away from the product.

Christy Wrather is a columnist for the Payson Roundup. She can be reached by e-mail at or by snail mail at HC1 Box 210, Strawberry, AZ 85544.

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