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Has Language Gone to the Dogs?

Has Language Gone to the Dogs?A recent study found that dogs may have a greater capability to comprehend language than previously thought – but Tufts experts are still debating whether canine language is anythingto bark at. No. Grafton, Mass.

Boston [06.28.04] A German research team recently made international headlines with a new study about the language comprehension of dogs. The findings - which suggested dogs can learn and understand hundreds of words - added more fuel to an ongoing debate about just how much pets can comprehend. It might be intriguing, but is canine language something to bark at? Two Tufts experts weigh in.

"[In a recent study,] German researchers found a border collie named Rico who understands more than 200 words and can learn new ones as quickly as many children," reported the Associated Press. "That is a vocabulary size about the same as apes, dolphins and parrots trained to understand words."

Tufts' Nicholas Dodman isn't surprised.

The director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine says dogs have the capacity to learn a lot more, but usually just get trained on basic commands. According to Dodman, dogs could probably learn many more words if people had the patience to teach them.

"With the dogs we just teach them in training class. They learn ‘sit', ‘down' and ‘stay' and then we stop training them," Dodman told ABC News.

Dodman - author of the book "If Only They Could Speak" - says some of the same tactics that help children learn language may work with dogs as well.

"With a child you sit there and you pick up a cup and you say ‘cup, cup.' You keep repeating it over and over again. They can learn - with their rapid learning skills - 10 new words a day," Dodman told ABC News.

Dogs might be able to learn many of the same words as toddlers, but a Tufts child development expert says the similarity in their language capacity likely ends there.

"Language is more than just a bunch of words," Tufts' Calvin Gidney, a professor of child development, told The Boston Globe. "There's a whole host of things a three year old child could do that a dog couldn't with linguistics."

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