In a recent blog post, I described my failure to convince Cali and Koala to use buttons to “talk” and make requests.
Their unwillingness has nothing to do with being hesitant to order humans around; they are quite adept at that. Nor do I believe that they are incapable of understanding English or even using it correctly — if they wanted to. Both dogs (especially Koala) demonstrate a deep understanding of the things we humans say to them. They are able to respond to requests and answer questions, though their answers use body language rather than words.
Chaser admirably demonstrated mastery of more than 1,000 words as well as basic grammar and syntax. Dogs effectively use body language and vocalizations to communicate with us, and don’t give up even when we misunderstand.
But I don’t believe that Bunny, the dog who is supposedly using her buttons to talk about love, make sentences, and ponder her place in the universe, is actually saying a lot of the things her admirers credit to her. (I do believe that dogs are aware of their own “selves,” though and that they have definite likes, dislikes, wants, and agendas.)
Communicate on dogs’ terms
Humans desperately want to communicate with non-humans. The trouble, as I see it, arises when we demand that they do it in our way and on our terms. And pretend that they are formulating complex sentences based on a shared understanding of concepts like love, strangers, or even pain.
While I am sure that dogs feel pain, what humans understand as pain or discomfort might be radically different from how dogs experience it. Even humans from different cultures have very different concepts of pain, illness, and discomfort.
And I am as sure that Cali loves me as I am that I adore her. But assuming that my personal concept of pain, love, or anything else translates to my dog’s experience would be arrogant. And probably wildly inaccurate.
Making the enormous leap to assuming that my inept attempts to get her to associate a specific button with deep concepts, and “teach” her to string together buttons to convey complex thoughts that make sense to a human … well, I have plenty of dog-training experience and I am quite sure that I can’t do that.
So what do I think is going on?
This story might help …
I once found a fabulous toy for Jana. It was a blue-and-white stuffed fish. When I pressed on it, instead of squeaking or grunting, it made a burbling sound then said, “Oy, vey.” In a sad, disappointed tone. Every time I heard it, I laughed.
Jana quickly figured out that she could make me laugh — and yes, I do think that dogs understand that laughter is a happy event. So she would get the toy, squeeze it, and watch for my reaction. When I stopped laughing, she’d look right at me and squeeze the fish again. She enjoyed provoking a happy reaction. My laughter was reinforcing, so she kept squeezing the fish.
When Bunny, or any other dog, presses the button that the human has self-servingly programmed to say, “I love you,” I am confident that the human delights in this action and, as I did, responds very positively. So the dog is reinforced and does it again and again.
Let’s be clear: I am not disputing that dogs can and do make the connection between pressing a specific button and being let out or getting a belly rub or a play session. So sure, Bunny and other dogs are probably using the buttons to ask for things. I’m also not disputing that dogs understand deep concepts. I’m sure that dogs have a concept of death and feel grief when someone they love dies, for example.
But that’s not the same as understanding complex concepts, in the same way humans understand those concepts; formulating verbal descriptions of their feelings and thoughts; and using the buttons to talk about them. We have no reason to believe that dogs think or dream in words, and they don’t sit around discussing their feelings. Smells are far more relevant to dogs than words.
As ethologist Marc Bekoff says over and over, dog joy is different from human joy (or cat joy or bird joy). We can’t really know how they experience love, pain, grief, or anything else. We can know that they are experiencing these emotions by their behavior — if we are paying attention and have made the effort to get to know them as individuals and understand how they communicate.
A solution in search of a problem
While the question of how extensively dogs (or any other non-humans) can learn and use human language is interesting and the study of the button-using dogs is fascinating, I’d rather see humans making the effort to understand their dogs’ natural communications. There’s no need to go through the considerable effort of teaching a dog to push combinations of buttons to communicate. The dog is already communicating. Constantly. And there are many excellent dog body language “dictionaries” available to help humans learn to understand what the dog is saying. (Start with this simple one; it’s charming.)
The buttons and the complicated sets of doggy signs are a solution — high-level inter-species communication — in search of a problem that dogs have already solved. They just haven’t solved it by learning to speak English.
I can’t help feeling that, to justify the effort put into teaching the dogs this unnecessary system, the humans feel compelled to “discover” all sorts of new cognitive abilities this communication device reveals … But the cognitive abilities aren’t new any more than dogs’ ability to communicate is a breakthrough.
Our dogs already show us and use their considerable cognitive might in so many ways. If only we’d pay attention.