A dog walking in the courtyard of an animal shelter n Landerneau, western France, on October 8, 2021. Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP (Getty Images)
If you’ve ever thought that your precious pup was a true genius, now you’ll have the chance to prove it. Researchers in the UK and Germany have launched a new citizen science project this week, hoping to find dogs that are extraordinarily good at human communication and object recognition.
In 2004, scientists published a study detailing their experiments with a seemingly remarkable border collie named Rico. They claimed that the German canine could understand more than 200 human words, all tied to the many toys he had. After calling out the toy’s name, Rico seemed capable of recognizing what it meant, then retrieving said toy back from another room. Rico also appeared to be great at learning new words. In another experiment, researchers added a new toy to his collection, while also introducing a word he had never heard before; Rico then appeared to quickly associate this new object with the new word. At the time, his level of vocabulary was likened to apes, dolphins, and parrots that had been trained to grasp human language.
Research into the communicative and cognitive skills of nonhuman animals has never been easy, owing to the fact that we simply can’t know what these animals are really thinking. So it’s always possible that Rico’s claimed abilities may not have been a sign of true human-to-dog communication. The study that made Rico famous did take pains to avoid an infamous phenomenon well known in animal cognition research, though, known as the Clever Hans effect. Hans was a supposed math-solving horse at the turn of the 20th century, but it was later shown that he was simply responding to the subtle cues of his trainer in picking out the right answer.
Rico sadly passed away in 2008, but he inspired further research that tried to test the boundaries of canine cognition. In the years since, other similarly talented dogs have been documented, including a fellow border collie named Chaser that’s said to recognize 1,000 words. And now the same researchers that studied Rico back then have named this project in his honor, simply titled “Finding Rico.”
“Rico was clearly one of the most exceptionally gifted dogs, but we know there are others out there who are as gifted. We hope this citizen science project will inspire people to work with us to test their dogs’ intelligence and to establish how common such superb skill really is,” said Juliane Kaminski, now director of the Dog Cognition Center at the University of Portsmouth in England, in a statement. The project is being co-run by researchers from the Dog Studies Lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.
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The project is soliciting submissions from all over the world, with their recruitment video being released in seven languages, including French, Japanese, German, Spanish, and English. Though Rico may have understood 200 words, the criteria for this project is much less strenuous. So long as your dog seems capable of identifying at least 20 different objects by name, the researchers want to hear from you. Those interested can contact the scientists at their email address, email@example.com.
And if your pooch isn’t a wordsmith, but you’re still interested in helping scientists better understand the dog brain, you can instead sign up for the Canine Metacognition project, which is also currently looking for volunteers.