Are you talking to me?

Cali, a golden retriever, looks quizzically at the camera.
Are you talking to me?

Be careful what you say; little ears are listening. And I don’t mean your children. It turns out that dogs do listen to what we say, as well as our tone of voice And they can often tell when we’re talking to them — or about something that matters to them.

A recent study, ‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog‑directed speech looked at what they called “dog-directed speech,” which resembles baby talk. Their canine test subjects were all adult dog guests of a boarding kennel whose humans gave permission for their participation.

An earlier study on this topic had played recorded voices to dogs who were alone in a room. The dogs didn’t pay much attention. To me, that shows their intelligence. Would you respond to a disembodied voice telling you that you were a “good boy” or to “come here”? I hope not!

The newer study is far more respectful of canine intelligence. They also used recorded speech, but an actual human, matching the gender of the voice, was in the room.

Dogs were more likely to look at, approach, and interact with the researcher who was present when dog-directed speech — high-pitched dog talk — than boring human talk in a normal pitch and register.

The researchers also investigated whether dogs had a preference for content of speech.

The dogs showed the most interest in high-pitched, emotional speech directed to them, with relevant content. Dull content in an interesting tone was no more appealing to them than interesting content said in a dull tone.

What does this tell us? Perhaps that:

  • Dogs learn to associate meanings with particular words and phrases, as well as a particular tone of voice.
  • People tend to use a higher-pitched, more excited tone when talking to dogs, so dogs learn that what is said in these exaggerated tones is meaningful.
  • Dogs learn that people might say interesting things in a dull tone and then nothing fun for dogs happens, so they learn to ignore even favored words (“walk” or “cookie”) when it’s clear that the human isn’t addressing them.

Additional layers develop as a specific human builds a relationship with a specific dog.

I’ve always talked fairly conversationally to my dogs, and they do respond to relevant phrases and questions, even when I say them in a “normal” tone. I believe that dogs learn to read their humans and are able to tell — with a familiar person, though not necessarily with a researcher — which speech is relevant to them, regardless of tone.

I also think that it’s about time more people studied communication with dogs!

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Social Dynamics

A large white structure that served as the dog play pavilion at the Guiding Eyes seminar
Photo by Michelle Russell

Watching dogs figure out the social dynamics of their constantly changing groups is fascinating. Many people assume that it’s OK to put dogs who’ve never met together in any group configuration and they’ll just instantly become friends and play nicely together. That’s an odd assumption, particularly considering that most people also don’t think that dogs communicate particularly well.

At the Guiding Eyes weekend I recently attended, I got to see how a group of experienced dog professionals handled group play. The hotel had given us the use of a covered pavilion — the type where wedding receptions might be held. It was a large space, walled in by a low fence and covered with a heavy, waterproof white cover.

Eighty guide dog teams attended the event, and they were given time slots for dog play. In addition, people wandered in and out of the play area during unscheduled evening and morning hours.

The trainers brought exercise pens to use as dividers and other equipment. It hadn’t even occurred to me that they’d divide up the space, but it was a great idea. They created three smaller play areas, never putting more than three or four dogs together. Each section had a couple of trainers keeping watch. Before putting a dog into a play yard, the trainer removed the dog’s collar, which had tags that could get caught on something (like another dog’s teeth), and replaced it with a plain collar. The dog’s partner was told the color of this temporary collar.

Trainers watch playing guide dogs at the Guiding Eyes seminar; the dogs' partners are seated along the side of the play area.
Photo by Michelle Russell

As the dogs played, the trainers watched them constantly. If a dog became overly excited or rough, the trainers used shepherd’s crooks, slipping the hook under the dog’s collar, to gently guide the dog in a new direction. During the times I was watching, I never saw any play morph into aggression or any dog get hurt, and dogs rarely needed separating.

When a dog was done playing, she’d get her collar back and return to her partner. Once, two similar-sized black Lab girls ended up with play collars of the same color. Though each partner was sure she had the right dog, the trainers scanned their microchips and checked the numbers against a list they’d brought, just to be 110 percent sure that no dog mix-up occurred.

The microchip check is probably not needed in the average dog day care or dog park, but the other precautions the trainers took are. The Guiding Eyes dogs are all very well trained, and many dogs at the weekend conference knew each other — they’d been in the same puppy raiser region or in the kennels for training at the same time. Even so, the trainers were careful to keep play groups small, match size and energy level, and monitor all the dogs’ interactions.

That’s how the pros do it.

That contrasts with what I often see at day cares and other places where dogs play. An indoor dog park a trainer friend recently described, for example, has one huge play space and minimal or no supervision. The managers allow as many as three dozen dogs to play at once. Sounds scary; much as I like the idea of an indoor play space, I doubt I’d feel comfortable letting my dog play there.

Even dogs who know each other well need close supervision when they are playing. In a large group, play can quickly escalate to aggression or bullying. Even dogs who know each other well can get over-excited or possessive of a particularly valuable toy or chew. That’s another thing; the trainers made sure that the only toys in the Guiding Eyes play pavilion were tug ropes, which the dogs, mostly Labradors, loved.

From breaking up the space to using shepherd’s crooks to ensuring constant supervision, the trainers provided a great model for dog play.

What’s so funny?

Cali seems to laugh; pictured with Dora and Jana
What’s so funny, Cali?

What do dogs think about human laughter?

People often ask me this question. I think that dogs understand that laughter is a good thing; it means that the person is happy — with them, with life in general. I also think that some dogs actively try to get their humans to laugh.

img_3944-copyJana had a toy called a “gefilte fish. She’s had several, actually. Instead of squeaking when squeezed, the fish says, in a distressed voice, “Oy, vey!” It then makes a bubbling sound. When Jana first got that toy, she squeezed it a lot. Each time, I would laugh. She soon took to standing in front of me and “oy, vey-ing” the fish. She’d watch carefully, and if I seemed about to stop laughing, she’d “oy vey” again. She’d give a little tail wag each time she got a laugh from me.

Cali tries to get me to laugh, too. If I am preoccupied or otherwise not paying enough attention to her, she’ll lie on her back and madly bicycle her back legs so that she propels herself around the room. I laugh, of course, at her silliness. She looks slyly at me, her signature sideways look, and makes sure I am watching her.

Dogs not only understand human laughter, they have a way of laughing too. I’m far from the first person to suggest this. In Man Meets Dog, respected ethologist and Konrad Lorenz describes a smiling, panting, most often seen during play, that he characterized as dog laughter. Bark magazine also ran an article discussing dog laughter.

It’s not only dogs; researchers have found that rats, chimps, and other nonhumans laugh. Why not?

So, you’re not imagining it if you think that your dog is laughing (at you?) or enjoying your laughter. Many dogs have a great sense of humor. Even more dogs have a silly side, like Cali. Sharing a joke is just one more way to deepen and enjoy our relationships with them.

 

Speaking Dog

One golden retriever bows to invite another to playI saw a sad little exchange today. A brown dog and a black dog met, and, while their humans chatted, the brown dog play bowed and invited the black dog to engage. The black dog’s human reacted by jerking his dog backward, away from the brown dog in what seemed a defensive or fearful response. Brown dog’s human pulled his dog away too, then leaned down and gave brown dog a stern talking-to. It seemed that both humans completely misunderstood the play bow and the friendliness in brown dog’s approach and demeanor.

This happened just a few minutes after a conversation with a friend who had described her communication with her birds. She doesn’t teach them English; she doesn’t exactly speak their language, but they have all evolved a communication that goes beyond words and human language to describe a relationship and mutual respect and understanding.

I know little of birds; I do strive for that sort of communication with the dogs in my life, though. The dogs learn many words of English (Hebrew, too, in Jana’s case). They also excel at reading human body language. But there is another layer that comes from a deep, close relationship. It is communication. It might be language, but it’s not something anyone outside the group would understand. When a person gets to that level of communication with her dog (or her bird), it is very satisfying and intimate. Jana and I had that kind of connection, and it’s what makes her loss so hard.

Most dogs seem to try very hard to understand their people; many succeed at understanding lots of people and dogs, even cats, if they live with a cat or two. It would be nice if more people made the effort to learn the basics of dog-to-dog and dog-to-human communication.

 

The Original Thinking Dog

Jana, a white golden retriever, lying in front of a gate

She was only about 4 weeks old when we met. She stood out from the litter because, well, she tumbled right over to say hi. Jana had 2 sisters and 3 or 4 brothers; I looked only at the girls. After the first few minutes, I really looked only at Jana. I saw friendliness and curiosity each time she ran over to greet me; what she really was, I soon understood, was a girl who knew what she wanted and always, always got it.

I initially planned to raise and train Jana as a service dog. That idea lasted, well, maybe for a few weeks after she came home. But it was soon clear that I was Jana’s person and that was that. She wasn’t going anywhere unless I went too.

We moved from Israel, where Jana was born, to the U.S. a little before her second birthday. I took her to Petsmart to choose a birthday toy. She’d never seen anything like a Petsmart. Rows and rows and rows of treats and toys — and fish in aquariums, and hamsters and guinea pigs and iguanas — what an amazing plaPink stuffed pigce! When she finally focused on selecting her birthday present, Jana zeroed in on a bright pink pig. Jana, I said to her, Jana, you are a Jewish girl from Israel. This toy is not an appropriate choice. How about this nice fleece doggy?

Jana got the pig (and the doggy).

I could tell Jana stories for pages and pages. Or I could write the usual obit stuff about Jana — where she traveled, for example. She drove cross-country with me several times and visited at least 45 states. I could write about all of her skills — how seriously she took her newspaper job, how quickly she learned new skills — or about her strong, independent personality, or how she invented no-touch cuddling. She wanted to be nearby, possibly leaning against a beloved person, but the person had better not pet her. She accepted touching only on her terms; anything else was considered an assault on her dignity. She’d give the clueless human a dirty look and walk away, settling in the farthest corner of the room. Jana did not like to be treated in any way like a dog.

But Jana was so much more than stories and adventures. Jana was my teacher.

From Jana, I learned to see dogs in a completely new way and to appreciate their complex intelligence, their ability to communicate their needs and preferences. I learned to pay attention to each dog’s unique foibles and personality. I learned to see the thinking, feeling individual inside each dog.

I’m not alone. Jana touched so many people and showed them, too, what she — and other dogs — could do, learn, understand, communicate. I knew that Jana had many friends and fans, but the sheer volume of notes, comments, Facebook posts, phone calls, and cards that I got this week showed me how badly I’d undercounted. Some were from people we hadn’t seen in years; others from people we’ve never even met. And every memory that comes to mind includes more people. Knowing how many other people loved Jana means a lot to me; Jana lives on through all that she has taught us about seeing dogs more clearly.

The Thinking Dog blog itself was named for Jana, a deep thinker. She planned, she analyzed, she weighed her options — starting when she was only a few weeks old and she chose me to be her person. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Scary Dog

Cali, puffed up and trying to be fierce
Cali tries to look fierce

A few weeks ago, while Jana was recovering from a vestibular incident and not joining Cali and me on the morning trek to the park, Cali found herself in a scary situation. On the way to the park, we pass a big, old corner house with two doggy residents. We see the younger one at the park pretty regularly. He’s a young husky mix, big and boyish. Cali doesn’t play with him; he’s too high-energy for her. But she’s not afraid of him, and he’s sweet. If he’s in the yard when we walk by, he doesn’t even bark.

His big sister, Diva, is a different story. She’s about Jana’s age, and she aggressively defends her territory. OK, that’s not fair; she barks aggressively, but doesn’t do anything more than bark. When Jana’s passing by, she anticipates Diva’s barking and tenses up. First of all, she just knows that she should be called Diva. Secondly, she envies Diva her large yard. But even beyond all my anthropomorphic projection, there is a bit of a grudge match between these two. Jana wants to preempt Diva’s barking by barking. They hurl insults at each other as I hustle Jana past the yard. Cali feels safely protected by her big sister.

That’s all fine when Jana is there. But on this morning: No Jana.

We were on our way home from the park, which means that Cali was carrying her tennis ball in her mouth. So, we were walking along, and I saw Diva a split second before Diva saw us and started barking. With no big sister there to protect her, and with mom woefully inept at the barking needed to address this dire threat, Cali stepped admirably up to the plate. She puffed up her hackles, making herself as fluffy … I mean, as big and scary … as she could. She barked her fiercest bark. However, that bark, filtered through the tennis ball in her mouth, sounded like a Chihuahua. A laughing, decidedly non-fierce Chihuahua.

Need I even say it: Diva was not impressed.

Not frightened at all by this fierce version of Cali. I wouldn’t have been frightened either; I just wanted to hug her since she was being so cute. I resisted; the humiliation might have done in poor Cali.

I feel for Cali. It must be terribly frustrating when you are trying your darndest to be strong and courageous and scary … and the people and dogs you’re trying to impress just want to hug you. Or laugh. A human teenager might respond by taking up weightlifting or trying out for the football team, but Cali seems OK. Maybe she’s emotionally healthy enough to shake it off. Or maybe she’s just really relieved that Jana’s recovered and back with us on morning walks.

Dogs Understand Our Words — and Our Tone of Voice

janaNYT

This week, many media outlets have run stories on a recent Hungarian study that might show that dogs not only understand the words we say to them, they also understand the tone of voice. I haven’t yet read the full paper, but based on several articles, here’s the gist.

The 13 dogs, trained to lie still in an MRI machine (so already a select group of highly educated individuals …), were tested on four sets of cues: Praise words said in a “praising intonation,” described as a higher and more varying pitch than neutral speech; the same praise words in a neutral tone; neutral words in a praise tone; and neutral words in a neutral tone.

From interactions with dogs, most of us know that we can get dogs to respond to pretty much anything we say in an excited or happy tone. And we know that they respond to some words even if we barely whisper them. For instance, a whispered “c…o…o…o…o…k…i…e…e…e…” gets a reliable response even if the dog is 100 yards away, playing happily with her buddy. But this research study, like several other MRI studies by this team and an American team, looked at the response in specific areas of the dogs’ brains, not their actions.

Praise words, regardless of tone, caused reactions in the left hemisphere of the dogs’ brain; this is similar to what the researchers would see in a human brain that is processing speech. Neutral tones, regardless of words, produced a reaction in the right hemisphere; this is similar to what the researchers would see in a human brain that is processing generic acoustic information. And, when the praise words were spoken in the praising tone, the reward centers of the dogs’ brain lit up. This shows that the dogs were able to integrate the meaning of the words and the tone and deduce meaning from them.

This study seems to show that dog brains process speech similarly to the way human brains process speech, which is what this article on Smithsonian.com reports. Other media reports said that it also means that the dogs understand human language, like this one from NPR.

Some experts, like one of my all-time-favorite scientists, Dr. Gregory Berns, told Smithsonian.com that the paper has been “wildly overinterpreted,” partly due to its methods. He pointed out that responding to speech and tone is not the same as understanding it.

That may well be true. On the other hand, the NPR article warns of the perils of life with such smart dogs, particularly if — as I do — one leaves NPR on for them to listen to all day. My dogs are, indeed, both smarter and better-informed than I am, especially now that I work in an office and do not listen to NPR all day.

However, in all seriousness, I think the overinterpretation also may be oversimplification. Yes, our dogs learn that certain words, even sentences, have specific meanings. They learn our habits and routines, and through experience with us, they associate all kinds of things with words. In our household some examples are: Leashes and fun and ball-playing with, “Who wants to go to the park?”; bowls of yummy food with “How about some dinner?”; and a careful backing up so that just her large, furry front paws are over the threshold with “Out of the kitchen, Cali.” The front feet then scootch back almost imperceptibly in response to, “The entire dog, please.” So yes, my dogs understand and respond somewhat appropriately to several sentences; I suspect that each family’s dogs have a set of favorites.

But even armed with my years of knowledge of their intelligence, along with my new realization of their eruditeness (is there a dog-oriented radio station that I could leave on instead of NPR?), I do not think that they process and understand human language in the same way that a human adult does.

What I do think, based on a combination of experience and having read dozens of research papers on dog-human communication, is that they read us really, really well. They don’t respond only to the words we say or the words combined with the tone of voice. Humans don’t either; so much communication is based on body language and other cues, even between humans. But dogs really read our body language. They also read all the scents we are giving off, including pheromones that we are completely unaware of. They read our microexpressions and our posture and our facial expression and pay attention to what we are doing as we are talking to them. They can figure out our emotions from these cues. They know when we “mean it” and when they can push the boundaries just a bit further.

Cali is much quicker to listen to my “get out of the kitchen” phrases when I am fixing her dinner than when I am doing the dishes. She’s learned that I will stop fixing her dinner and wait for her to leave the kitchen. She doesn’t like that consequence. But she doesn’t much care if I get the dishes done and maybe even wants me to stop doing them so I can pay attention to her.

The point is, looking at dogs’ response to words and voice in isolation doesn’t make sense, because in their lives with us, that is not how they use language. Another important thing to remember about dogs, as opposed to any other nonhumans, is that so much of who they are has been shaped by the fact of their lives with us. The dog-human connection is unique; our communication with them is different from our communication with any other nonhumans (even cats).

The most important point, though, is that dogs pay close enough attention to us to learn the meanings of the different things we say to them. They care whether we’re happy with them — or just whether we’re happy. I’m excited about new discoveries about dogs’ intelligence and cognitive abilities. But I am even more excited about new reasons to cherish the relationship I have with my girls and that others have with their dogs.