Talk to the Animals 

Even if a dog can understand human language, what good will it do him?

Even if a dog can understand human language, what good will it do him?

Last week, a 10-year-old border collie named Rico convinced some German scientists that he can understand about 200 words. I wish I could tell you that it was because Rico's boss turned to him and said, "Go get dinner," and Rico answered back, "OK. You want lamb or goat? Because if it's all the same to you, I'm about ready for some goat."

But no. The German findings were subtler than that. Rico's vocabulary is pretty much limited to the names of his toys. He can't say the names of his toys, he just recognizes the names. Still, if you're a dog, I guess knowing the German word for "slobber-soaked tennis ball" is pretty slick.

It probably helps that Rico is a border collie. Everybody who watches Animal Planet knows that the border collies win at everything. They're the best Frisbee-catching, obstacle-jumping, chicken-killing breed in the world. And they don't have any quit in them. At the end of every dog competition, the border collies have to be hauled off the stage like James Brown at the end of "Please, Please, Please."

Patti Strand, a board member at the American Kennel Club, isn't surprised that dogs understand words. "Like parents of toddlers," she told the Associated Press, "we learned long ago the importance of spelling key words like bath, pill or vet when speaking in front of our dogs."

Well, what kind of dog-parenting is that, keeping the poor pooches in the dark, then springing pills and baths and painful exams on them? Nothing against the Strands, but I think they ought to be straight with their dogs and tell 'em what's coming. You don't want your dog to lose faith in you. One day, your house might be on fire, and your dog will be thinking to himself, Should I pull that deceitful sumbitch outside Lassie-style or just let him find his own way out? I know what I'd do if I were the dog: I'd roll around in the soot, then limp over to the closest friendly-looking fireman and give him the sad eye. I figure that would get me free food and lodging for life down at the firehouse, where I might just learn how to play some poker.

But enough about my dog fantasies. Back to Rico. Here's how the researchers decided that he had a human vocabulary bouncing around inside his dog-head: They put several of his familiar toys in a room, along with one new, unfamiliar toy. From another room, Rico's boss told him to go fetch a toy, using a toy name that Rico hadn't heard before. Seven times out of 10, Rico fetched the new toy. "Apparently, he was able to link the novel word to the novel item based on exclusionary learning," says Julia Fischer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Sweet Baby Jesus! I'm not highly trained in dog science, but I know that any useful dog ought to be able to score 70 percent on a toy-fetching test. That wasn't "exclusionary learning." That was just a dog who got lucky on an early fetch, saw the happy look on his boss's face, and did the same thing six more times. My Basset hound, Rufus, who is just about as dumb as a dog can get, loves me enough to go 7 for 10 in a making-Walter-smile exercise.

The researchers were excited when, a month after the fetching experiment, Rico remembered the name of the new toy three out of six times. They said that was about what they'd expect out of a 3-year-old child.

I'm starting to think that these researchers are fishing for grant money. The dog drops from a 70, which is a D-minus, down to a 50, which is an F in any school brave enough to flunk a kid, and they're acting like they've scored a breakthrough.

Even if Rico could read and decode the entire, insufferable life's work of John Milton, what good would that do anybody? He still wouldn't be able to talk. Knowing a lot of words would just make him a good listener. Well, dogs are already good listeners—better than they would be if they could read Paradise Lost. If I die and go to hell, they'll give me a dog who reads Milton out loud.

The researchers continue to work with Rico. Right now, they're trying to teach him to put toys in certain boxes and bring toys to certain people.

You dog researchers, listen to me: Rico's 10 years old. He doesn't have a whole lot of good years left. Quit wasting that dog's time on learning words and picking up toys. Get him an enthusiastic and fecund girl-dog, a Frisbee and some pig ears. Let him dig a hole under the porch and enjoy his twilight years in peace. If you want toys picked up, get some little human kids to do it. If you want to train trick dogs, train 'em to do something useful, like go to the store, buy a six-pack of fine German beer and bring you back some change.


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