Such is the premise of this National Geographic article from a few years ago. Almost every owner will tell you that their dog understands them, but if you have a border collie, that may be more true than you might have believed:
Just how easily new mental skills can evolve is perhaps best illustrated by dogs. Most owners talk to their dogs and expect them to understand. But this canine talent wasn’t fully appreciated until a border collie named Rico appeared on a German TV game show in 2001. Rico knew the names of some 200 toys and acquired the names of new ones with ease.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig heard about Rico and arranged a meeting with him and his owners. That led to a scientific report revealing Rico’s uncanny language ability: He could learn and remember words as quickly as a toddler. Other scientists had shown that two-year-old children—who acquire around ten new words a day—have an innate set of principles that guides this task. The ability is seen as one of the key building blocks in language acquisition. The Max Planck scientists suspect that the same principles guide Rico’s word learning, and that the technique he uses for learning words is identical to that of humans.
To find more examples, the scientists read all the letters from hundreds of people claiming that their dogs had Rico’s talent. In fact, only two—both border collies—had comparable skills. One of them—the researchers call her Betsy—has a vocabulary of more than 300 words.
“Even our closest relatives, the great apes, can’t do what Betsy can do—hear a word only once or twice and know that the acoustic pattern stands for something,” said Juliane Kaminski, a cognitive psychologist who worked with Rico and is now studying Betsy.
Nat Geo has been a tremendous resource to me in writing Lost Dogs, my upcoming YA novel about a group of dogs who struggle to survive after the apocalypse. This particular issue inspired me to create the character of Rex, a border collie, notable for his smarts and his eyes: one blue, one brown.
You know a lot of Belonging words, Buddy says.
I lived with my Belonging for a long while, Rex tells him. It was just her and me—no one else. She used to talk to me a lot, almost always with her mouth. You know how they are.
You could understand what she said? Penny asks.
A lot of the time, yes, Rex replies.
You’re smart, Jake tells him, still sitting.
That’s what she used to tell me, Rex says. She taught me to do things—“tricks,” she called them—when she told me to. Sit up and lie down and get up again and jump and roll over and speak and then stop. To get things and bring them to her—“keys” or “the ball” or “my hat” or “my jacket” or lots of other things I could carry. We’d go Out in our yard and she’d throw things and I’d run after them and catch them before they touched the ground. Sometimes other Belongings would come to our house and she’d have me do these “tricks,” and it seemed to make them happy. And then she’d give me more treats.
She sounds very nice, Sally says. You must have loved her.
Rex is a major character, and he’s one of my favorites. Once the book comes out this summer, I hope he’ll become one of yours, too.
Kenton Kilgore is the author of DRAGONTAMER’S DAUGHTERS, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief. Look for his next work, LOST DOGS, a young adult sci-fi novel, coming this summer.