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Dog Prodigy Gives New Meaning to Language

If you think your dog understands you, scientists say you may be right. New research shows that some dogs have a remarkable capacity to comprehend human speech. As NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, the finding adds to recent evidence that modern humans aren't the only creatures with the potential to learn languages.

The research, reported in the current issue of Science, centers around canine prodigy Rico. The Border collie can recognize the names of more than 250 toys and fetch them on command.

To test Rico's learning ability, researchers with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology placed a new toy among seven familiar toys. When the owner asked Rico to fetch the new item, using a name the Border collie had never heard before, Rico correctly retrieved the new item seven out 10 times. Even more remarkable: Not only can Rico connect a new word with a new object on the first try, he can also remember the word when tested a month later.

"We know now that the dog can rapidly associate new words with new objects, which is just what children do right at the point that language takes off," says Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a Georgia State University researcher who works with great apes. "So the dog's on the border of very complex language ability."

These abilities seen in animals such as dogs, bonobos and orangutans, go against the theory that only humans have the capacity for language, and that it came from a genetic mutation in the past 200,000 years or so.

Some researchers say it appears many species have the potential to communicate with humans, and whether that potential is realized may depend more on the quality of an animal's interactions with people than on having a highly developed brain.

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Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.