As dog lovers it’s quite obvious that we communicate with our dogs. At the very least, they react to our body language and emotions in ways that indicate they understand our intentions and moods. How much and what we actually understand from each other is another question. Without words, it’s very easy to project all sorts of thoughts on our furry friend and he might do the same to us. Science today is making huge progress in the field of human and dog communication. New studies shed some light on how we understand each other. Could we even imagine one day being able to communicate through actual language? That day may come sooner than we think!
We mostly understand our dog by looking at him. His actions define his intentions and his body language gives us a good idea of his state of mind. Just like we’re good at recognizing human states of mind by looking at other people’s faces, recent studies have shown that we’re also pretty good at reading our dog’s facial expressions. Just by looking at his face, we can tell when our dog is happy, sad, surprised or scared (Bloom & friedman, 2013). Not surprisingly, we’re also fairly good at interpreting different types of vocalizations (Pongrácz & al., 2005). When humans were asked to listen to recordings of dog barks they were remarkably accurate in categorizing them according to different emotions. Regardless of whether or not they had been dog owners, the participants recognized aggressive, playful and fearful barks. Further studies will focus on identifying if this ability is innate in humans and has evolved over the many years of living with dogs.
But even though we are great at understanding our dog and they have also shown great ability to understand us (‘You can’t lie to your dog’), we would still prefer to just be able to talk to them. Dogs have shown great abilities to associate our human words with objects or actions (see previous blog ‘ blah, blah…’), but that’s still very different than really understanding our verbal language. We are so eager to communicate with our animals, that we not only wish that they could understand us through the use of words, we also want to translate the sounds that they produce, into meaningful sentences. I have to confess, that out of curiosity, I was among the first to buy one the earliest versions of the dog translators 10 years ago. Today the Bow-Lingual is probably the most popular of the translating devices and promises to translate your dog’s vocalization into one of the six emotional states: happy, sad, frustrated, on guard, assertive and needy. It stays in my opinion more of a fun gadget than a real tool since, as it has been shown, we’re already fairly good at decoding their emotions.
In a not too distant future however, Con Slobodchikoff (2013) suggests that we may actually have at our disposal, a real tool allowing for such communication with our pets. Spending most of his career decoding animal social interactions, he identified that most animals have word-like phonemes that could be combined into calls similar to sentences. They can alert for different predators, informing about their location (in the sky, on the ground), species, size and color. His observations are mostly based on prairie dogs, but suggest the possibility of what he calls social chatter where animals take turns making sounds. While most of the alert sounds are produced within a specific context, which makes it easy to crack the code, social chatter happens at times where not much is going on. It’s therefore much more difficult to figure out. Slobodchikoff and his colleague are hoping to create technology that will act as a translator that could decode what our cats and dogs express. He believes that within 10 years we might be able to communicate back and forth with our pets as well as with other species, like farm animals. Cats alone have about 35 different vocalizations for instance and dogs have a variety of different barks. Coupled with video capture technology, Slobodchikoff believes that future communication between humans and animals could see a real breakthrough.
As previously discussed, we know that dogs can associate words with objects or actions, or that other species like African grey parrots, chimpanzees and gorillas have been able to learn hundreds of words or symbols. These incredible abilities suggest the existence of similar cognitive abilities with humans for language processing. According to Slobodichiff, we’ve been ‘barking up the wrong tree’ and need to start recognizing that we may not be the only species with the ability for language.
Today, dogs may only have a limited capacity when it comes to understanding our words. But no matter how little, considering that we are of a different species, the fact that they can do it at all, is already quite impressive. In the near future however, if science does indeed crack the code of animal language, our communication with them may look more like Dr. Doolittle! Let’s think about the implication this might have on the way we treat animals in our society. If they could speak for themselves, what would they say about us?
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.