Border collies understand hundreds of words

In language research, the scientific attempt to teach other animals than humans something of the human language, our hairy cousins the great apes have been studied in particular. Already at the beginning of the last century did scientists attempt to teach chimpanzees to pronounce human spoken words, after which one started teaching signs to great apes from the sixties onwards, and from the seventies onwards by using geometric symbols or lexigrams. Also since the seventies, dolphins, sealions and parrots have been studied in language research. In the past few years, however, there have been several interesting studies with dogs. Everyone who sometimes relates to a dog, knows that most dogs can react to commands like “sit” and “stay”. In these recent studies it has been demonstrated that some dogs can understand hundreds of human words.

Border collies

The dogs I’m talking about are border collies. In the history of the human domestication of dogs, the border collies have been selected for their ability to herd cattle, in particular sheep. They originate in the border area between England and Scotland (therefore the name ‘border’). They have lots of energy, show great speed and agility and are used in all kinds of dog sports. And they’re very intelligent. In the classification by Stanley Coren the border collie is supposed to be the most intelligent dog (followed by the poodle and the German shepherd).

Research by Juliane Kaminski

Early 2000s Juliane Kaminski, doctor in psychology at the Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology at Leipizg University in Germany, heard about a border collie named Rico, who could understand up to 200 human words for toy objects. The woman who took care of him, Susanne Baus, had started learning Rico words when he was 10 months old and had to recover from an operation and couldn’t be left of the leash outside. She showed him a toy, like a stuffed animal, a ball, told him what the word for it was and by repeating this often enough, the woman could eventually ask Rico to bring the object in various rooms of the house. Kaminski was very interested and set up a good study to find out if Rico truly understood the words.

Clever Hans

In order to do so, the Clever Hans effect had to be prevented. This term in science stands for the presence of human cues that can explain a seemingly intelligent behaviour of an animal. It is named after the horse Kluger Hans in Germany, who at the beginning of the last century was famous as a miracle horse. Hans could count, subtract and multiply, tell time, spell out words and more, by tapping his hoof or moving his head. The German psychologist Oskar Pfungst subsequently investigated the horse and he came to the conclusion that the horse was very good in reading the body language of the humans who stood around him. At first the humans would often watch in a tense way when he had been given a question, and when Hans had reached the right number with his hoof, the humans would relax, thereby giving Hans a signal that he should stop tapping his hoof. Maybe Rico was observing his human companion in a similar way and had he not learned words for objects, but was following unconscious human cues.

Rico understands 200 words, Betsy 340

To prevent the Clever Hans effect, Kaminski set up her study as follows. The researcher was in one room together with Rico and Susanne Baus, the woman who took care of him. Before that, Kaminski had put ten objects in a random order on the floor of another room. Baus then had to ask Rico to bring an object, without being able to see the objects and without knowing in what order Kaminski had put them in the other room. Rico went to the other room and fetched the objects correctly. Rico thus had not been able to use human cues to find the right object and had to have an understanding that the human words referred to the objects. After these first 10 objects, the procedure was repeated with another 10 objects and so on. Eventually Rico was able to understand 200 human words for objects. Words like Banane, BigMac, Weihnachtsmann, Hund, Kamel and Zitrone. Kaminski published her study in 2004 in Science and Rico became famous as the dog who understands hundreds of human words. Shortly after that, Kaminski heard of a border collie in Austria, Betsy, who also could understand words and she determined that she could even understand more than 340 human words. Below you see a short film from a BBC documentary about dogs, in which you see Rico and Betsy (in the last few minutes of the film).

Chaser: 1,022 words!

Early this year John Pilley and Allison Reid, two psychologists from Wofford College in South Carolina (USA) published a study with the border collie Chaser in Behavioural Processes. When Kaminski published her work with Rico in 2004, Pilley became intrigued by the question how mány words a border collie is able to comprehend. He got Chaser when she was 8 weeks old and when she was 5 months old he started training her for three years, training Cahser for 4 to 5 hours a day in learning words for objects (the psychology professor Pilley was enjoying his retirement and so had the time for this). Just like the woman who had taught Rico words, Pilley showed Chaser an object, said “This is a …” and repeated this many times a day until Chaser would correctly bring the object. Pilley interspersed this intensive training with lots of loving attention and play with Chaser. In the eventual test of Chaser’s knowledge, care was taken again to prevent unconscious human cueing, by having the objects spread out in another room. Eventually, Chaser demonstrated comprehension of the high number of 1,022 different words for all kinds of toys, many stuffed animals and puppets in all kinds of sizes, balls and frisbees and various kinds of plastic toys. Pilley even went one step further and taught Chaser also the words toy, ball and frisbee. These are not individual names of objects, but categories of objects. Chaser successfully fetched toys if she was asked for that (in a setup with 8 toys and 8 non-toys), and similarly was able to bring balls or frisbees. For balls and frisbees Chaser is able to understand three different labels for an object: its individual name, if it’s a toy or not, and if it’s a ball or a frisbee. Click here for a YouTube film of Pilley and Chaser, in which Chaser shows her understanding of the word ball.

Border collies are thus capable of understanding hundreds of human words and are in that sense comparable to the great apes. In particular of the bonobo Kanzi it has been demonstrated by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh that he could understand hundreds of human words for objects and actions. Border collies are clever, intelligent dogs who have been selected by humans for their ability to cooperate and communicate with humans, which may also to some extent explain their abilities in these studies with words.

The search for the Dutch Chaser

Of course I am very curious to know whether there are border collies in The Netherlands who can understand many human words. If so, I am planning on replicating Kaminski’s studie with a Dutch border collie. If you have a border collie who understands many words, or know someone else with such a dog, please contact me!


  • Stanley Coren. (1993). The intelligence of dogs. Free Press.
  • Juliane Kaminski, Josep Call & Juliane Fischer. (2004). Word learning in a domestic dog: Evidence for fast mapping. Science, 304, 1682-1683.
  • John Pilley & Alliston Reid. (2011). Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents. Behavioural Processes, 86, 184-195.
  • E. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Jeannine Murphy, Rose A. Sevcik, Karen E. Brakke, Shelly L. Williams & Duane M. Rumbaugh. (1993). Language comprehension in ape and child. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 58, (3-4, Serial No. 233).


Filed under Animal Communication, Language research with animals

8 responses to “Border collies understand hundreds of words

  1. Border Collie fans, this is interesting info for you!

  2. Words? BCs understand entire sentences. 🙂
    Wonderful post – I enjoyed it a great deal.

  3. I was joking, but not entirely. I simply meant that they catch on very easily to entire sentences. I do not formally train; I simply talk as activities are going on, and they catch on. It’s the same I suppose as saying sit every time a dog sits down, so that he will soon sit down when one says sit. If we go outside the back gate and I say, “we are going to walk today”, the dogs run off ahead of me down the trail. If we go out and I say “we are going to play ball today”, the dogs sit and wait. If we are coming in from walking on the trail and I say, ‘we are not playing ball today – let’s go home”, they go inside the back gate. If we are coming back from walking and I say “we are playing ball today”, they sit and wait instead of going in the gate. If we are inside and I say, “I think I will make dinner now; go inside your apartments”, they go inside their crates. I suppose what I mean would be described as being passively trained to respond to whole sentence commands. I don’t always say exactly the same thing though so apparently they respond to key words in the sentences. Often they respond to sentences they have not heard before, but the sentences contain key words they have heard before. For example, one day we were playing ball outside the fence and when the dog brought it back to me I said, “take your ball home” and he took it inside the fence gate. I had never seen him go through the gate while he had his ball in his mouth and uttered the words “take your ball home”. Similarly, one was laying on a dog bed one day playing with his stuffed lamb and I said “take your lamb into the apartment”, and he took his lamb inside the crate. I had never seen him go into his crate with a toy and named the behavior with any sentence. Therefore it seems to me that since he knew what his lamb was and he knew what his apartment was and that he put the two together on his own.

    • Thanks so much for your detailed description of how your border collies react to verbal commands of multiple words. I think it’s wonderful that border collies (and most other dogs) understand something about human verbal communication. Interesting what you write about the dogs catching on on the short sentences without any explicit training. Except for the American border collie Chaser, who was trained intensively for hours each day, this passive way of being exposed to human words and sentences is exactly the way in which the European border collies Rico and Betsy and a few other border collies eventually understood the subject of hundreds of human words for toys and objects. Apparently, that’s all that’s necessary, to hear the words in situations that are are important to the dogs. Very interesting too that your dogs also react appropriately to sentences they never heard before, which command them to do things they never did before either, like taking the toy into their crate (I love the word “apartments” you use for their crates, by the way). I think you’re right that they pick up on the key words and then put the whole sentence command into connection. Chaser was trained to react to various action words in connection with object words for her toys. She could correctly respond to the commands “take ball”, “paw ball” and “nose ball.” I’m sure we’ll learn a lot more in the future about the intricate nature of dog-human communication. Thanks again for your reply!

  4. Thank you for taking the time to supply this additional information, as I am quite interested in everything about dogs. I had no idea that Rico and Betsy and others learned their words through this passive way. I agree that it is not only border collies who understand something about human verbal communication, as I have experienced the same with most dogs. By the way, the particular dogs I was referring to in my post are a crossbreed of border collie and labrador retriever – not purebred border collies at all. They know more words than my purebred border collies, but the purebreds were acquired as adult or near adult strays. I have been talking to the crossbreeds since they were born. I’m not sure if that is the reason, or if it is that in the crossbreeds the edginess of the border collie is toned down by the cross, plus being coupled with the lab’s desire to please. I think probably the most intelligent dog I ever had was a siberian husky. I’m convinced he understood everything I said, but due to his extreme independence he didn’t respond unless it suited him. 🙂 Please keep us posted as to what is going on in the study of dog-human communication!

    • Thanks again for the further information about the various dogs you have. It may well be that your crossbreeds of border collie and labrador retriever are better at understanding words than your purebred collies, because of their exact genetic composition. However, you also mention that you obtained the purebred border collies when they were already adult or near adult, whereas you’ve had the crossbreeds from birth. It probably is more likely that this is the reason for the difference between them in understanding words. Rico was 10 months old when his owner started asking him to bring objects, and Chaser was 5 months old when her intensive training started. No knowledge yet exists about dogs that started to learn words when they were already adults, so it’ll be interesting when new facts about adult dogs may someday become known.
      With regard to your siberian husky, it is very true that motivation is essential for a dog (or any animal, including human) to show his or her intelligence. If a dog is not interested in cooperating in a simple scientific test, it doesn’t mean that the dog is not intelligent, it only shows that he or she lacks the motivation to participate in the experiment. For this reason too it is up to now impossible to make conclusions about which breeds of dogs are the most intelligent. Stanley Coren’s classification, which I mention in the original post, considers the border collie as most intelligent. However, this was based on what dog experts thought about dogs and not based on extensive experimentation. Juliane Kaminski, who studied Rico, says we should take caution not to put too much weight on such classifications, as they originate in opinion rather than fact. Likewise, with these word studies: up to now only border collies have been succesful in demonstrating their understanding of hundreds of words. But border collies enjoy retrieving objects, which is necessary in these word studies to demonstrate their comprehension. If scientists construct word studies in different ways, possibly all kinds of other dogs could show to be able to understand hundreds of our words. It’s an intriguing subject, dog cognition, so keep following me in what I find out about science’s study of the subject!

  5. You have stated very clearly thoughts that I have had. To me, the intelligence classifications based on the percentage of times different breeds of dogs follow commands or respond to language are just as much, if not more so, an indicator of the dog’s motivation to work for and please the human, or to engage in the activity which they enjoy. A dog who is motivated to escape confinement (such as a husky desiring to run or a dog afraid of thunderstorms) can devise astounding means of getting out. Others, although they know very well how to flip up the latch on a chain link fence gate, will not even do that unless one stands on the other side of the gate and tells them to come. Still others might not do it when told to come, but will do it if a rabbit is sitting on the other side. 🙂 I can see that it is very difficult to attempt to measure their intelligence in any type of scientific fashion. In the field the more independent breeds often demonstrate great problem solving ability, but this could be because they do not immediately look to the human for help and direction. Who is the ‘smartest’ – the dog who gets his hind legs hung in vines in the swamp, deliberately studies the situation, and patiently chews threw what is holding him while the owner stands by and watches, or the one who looks immediately to the owner, whines, and stands patiently waiting for help? Such a comparison reveals nothing except the nature of the particular dog. I greatly enjoy you blog and intend to eventually read every entry. Of course I will be following!

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