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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What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Cover of Gregory Berns's book What It's Like to Be a DogI’ve had a serious crush on Dr. Gregory Berns ever since he published his first MRI studies. Those showed that dogs’ brains’ pleasure centers light up when they catch the whiff of a beloved human (or dog). There’s so much to love about his papers and his book How Dogs Love Us. So I was really excited about reading his newer book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

It’s well worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But … it wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s some really cool stuff, like the explanation of how dogs’ brains look when they’re doing the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test. I’ve played around with that a bit with Koala and Alberta, though I lack access to an MRI machine. So I was very interested in his findings. It turns out that some dogs do well with deferred gratification and others … not so much. You might notice that I haven’t talked about doing a marshmallow test with Cali. I don’t need a fancy machine to tell me that she lacks impulse control.

I was a little disappointed with some of the detours from living dogs’ brains into the long-ish discussions of the brains of deceased seals and Tasmanians. And I was distressed by the chapter on dogs and language.

I know that any sentence that pairs non-human animals with language raises the hackles of many people, scientists and non-scientists alike. I also think that there are many, many definitions of language and that dogs, particularly those with close human connections, understand a lot of what we say and do and they communicate with us in sophisticated ways. Lack of understanding of their “language” does not diminish its value. I get irritated when people choose a very narrow, very human-centered definition of language, such as one that is focused on semantics and grammar and written representation of a language, and then say, ‘see, only humans do this so only humans have language.’

Dogs communicate. They use their whole bodies — ears, tails, hackles, eyes, facial expressions, as well as scent and sound, to communicate. And dogs excel at reading the nonverbal communication of other dogs, humans, and often of other animals like cats. Other non-humans do this as well. Dogs are able to read humans far better than humans can read humans.

And dogs understand a lot of what we say to them. They might be assigning meaning to a combination of words and body language cues to understand our feelings, our desires, our mood rather than attaching the specific meanings that we do to individual objects or concepts. While I don’t expect Cali to speak to me in English or read the newspaper, much of the communication that I have with Cali — and especially what I had with Jana — is clear and meaningful.

Berns’s discussion of language, how he tested dogs’ understanding of words, and his interpretation of those results are very, very human-centric. He talks about the mirror test, which I believe is not a fair test for dogs. His comments on dogs’ lack of a sense of self or others: “My beloved Callie probably didn’t have abstract representations of me or my wife or my children. No, I was just that guy who feeds me hot dogs …” are off-base.

Dogs’ sense of self and others is primarily rooted in scent, not sight or sound. Berns himself showed that dogs recognize the scent of family members and respond differently than to the scent of unfamiliar humans or dogs. So I was mystified and saddened by what felt like a dismissal of the individuality of dogs’ selves and their relationships with key humans (or non-humans).

Despite a few disappointing chapters, I do recommend the book. I the insights into how dogs’ brains work are fascinating, and even where I disagree with Berns’s conclusions, I enjoy learning about his research and his understanding of dogs. Dr. Berns is still my favorite neuroscience researcher, and he’s a great writer. Check out both of his books if you haven’t already!

 

Guide Dog Haiku

Deni Elliott learns to work with Guiding Eyes Alberta, who is now retired.

Several Guiding Eyes dogs’ human partners recently posted haiku and other poetry to a graduates’ email list. The poems show their appreciation and love for their guides. A member of the list asked (and received) permission to share some of the poems, which appear below. Feel free to add, in the comments section, your own service- guide- or pet-dog haikus, odes, ballads … or tributes in any literary form.

Naughty puppy face
Harness on, working face on!
What to do without?

Night comes, harness off
Naughty puppy face once more
We dream together.

 

The trees and sky breathe
My golden girl goes forward
Our hearts together

 

My vision as wide
As a dog can see, hear, smell
Guiding Eyes radar

 

Walking by my side
You safely show me the way
Teamwork every day

 

Our talks as we walk
Open volumes clearly spoken
Unheard by strangers

 

They don’t know our language
We speak silently yet so loudly
RIGHT!  LEFT!  STOP!  I LOVE YOU!

A movement, a language, a laugh
in voices so clear to us
So invisible, so silent to strangers
Roxanne, I hear you

You speak more loudly
“You do, too, when you smile at me.”
I smile back
A wag of  tail
A snort and shake of collar
A lean against your leg
A huff, a snort.
I smile back

Strangers never know
We laugh out loud at them
Out loud but silently
Our talks when we travel
Volumes never heard so clearly spoken
So secret, so open

 

The partnership and communication between guides and their humans is unusual, but service-dog partners and working-dog partners often experience  a comparable connection. True communication develops best in relationships where both partners’ roles are recognized and each acknowledges the necessity and the significance of the other’s contribution. This idea goes to the heart of the Thinking Dog Blog and my reasons for writing it, which is why I wanted to share these heartfelt tributes to guide dogs, both working and retired.

In Her Own Time

Koala, a black Labrador, relaxes on a hammock-style dog bed

I wrote last week’s post on Koala and her reluctance to move to a big-girl bed a few weeks before it was published. Since then, she went on a long visit (with Deni of course) to Deni’s mom’s house. There, she did not have a crate. And, she decided, upon returning home, that she was ready for her grown-up bed. She wouldn’t even look at the crate. Crates are for babies, she said. Why would I want one?

The crate is gone.

I think it is more about choice than about where Koala sleeps. She wants to — and should be able to — make choices about things that affect her quality of life (to a reasonable extent, of course … Cali does not get to do the grocery shopping, for example, and neither does Koala).

I’ve had an interesting email conversation over the last couple of weeks with a reader who has taken her dogs’ communication and ability to make choices to an unusual level. She uses an approach similar to what I have seen a few other people do, which is to present two options and have the dog choose a hand. Left for yes, right for no, or left for “go for a walk” and right for “play ball.” Things like that.

I have not taught this to very many dogs, but Jana and Cali picked up the idea pretty quickly. Cali’s favorite daily choice is between two tennis balls (yes, she’s a bit obsessed). Our morning routine goes like this: Walk to the park. She skips and dances ahead and has to be reminded not to pull. As we get close to the gate she literally wriggles with joy and excitement. She gets to the gate first and stands at attention, touching the gate with her nose. I open the gate and reach down to unhook her leash. She bounds into the park, turns and sits, looking eager and expectant. I pull the Chuckit and two tennis balls out of the bag. I offer her both balls. She sniffs each one deeply, sometimes wavering, then makes a choice. She watches carefully to make sure I don’t pull a fast one, swapping the balls. I put the rejected ball away, slip the chosen ball into the Chuckit, and throw.

Occasionally we have a variation: She somehow gets hold of a ball at home and carries it to the park. I throw that one.

She always carries her ball home from the park.

The point is that, along with getting to play her favorite game, (which is not what you think) she gets some control over that game. The game, by the way, is not fetch or catch. It’s: Run after the ball, grab it, then keep it away from everyone else, human, canine, avian, or whatever, in the vicinity. Occasionally let a human get it and throw it again. Repeat for as long as you can get the humans to cooperate.

Anyhow, in addition to that, Cali gets to choose. She takes her choice very seriously. There are other choices in her day. She occasionally gets to choose between two treats or two games; she might get to choose whether to go for a walk or have a play session; she often gets to choose which direction we go on a walk. But really, she doesn’t have that many choices in her life. The few areas where she gets to exercise some control are important to her. I think that’s true for Koala as well. And for every other intelligent creature, canine or otherwise.

 

An Idea Whose Time Is Up

A recent Freakonomics podcast featured various politicians talking about one idea about elections that they wish would die, go away, never be mentioned again. I like that idea because I have a long list of absurd ideas about dogs and other nonhumans that I wish would go away and die a miserable, lonely death.

High up on that list is one that is getting a lot of attention these days, due to the unfortunate publication of a new book by novelist Tom Wolfe: the idea that only humans use language. Though I am one of the few people I know who disliked Bonfire of the Vanities, I had some professional respect for Wolfe as a writer until I heard his interview on NPR about his new book.

Wolfe essentially suggests that if evolution occurs, it only happens to nonhumans. That’s bad enough. But what really got my blood boiling were his comments on language. In the interview, Wolfe made the absurd claim that no evidence of anything resembling a language has ever been seen in a nonhuman. Wow. He really should have done some very basic research, like a cursory Google search, before deciding that. There’s a lot of research out there on animals and language.

Wolfe uses “speech” and “language” interchangeably, which is already a clear indication he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Many languages exist that are not based on speech, the most obvious being American (or any other) Sign Language. Thousands of nonverbal people understand and use language; some even write beautifully. Many actual scientists, even some who believe that only humans use language, have published extensive research on language and how it is separate from and does not require speech.

Wolfe also claimed that speech / language is necessary for any sort of memory or planning. Hmm, how does he explain insects, birds, mammals who store food for the winter (and remember where they put it); any critter who finds his way home once he leaves the den, ever, or who leads his pack back to the marvelous carcass or other food source he’s discovered? Even bees remember and guide others to food sources they’ve found. Memory. Memory, communication, teaching … And wouldn’t pack hunting, as wolves do, require planning? Building a nest or den requires both planning and memory. There’s a lot of research on these topics, too.But t

But really. Let’s focus on dogs for a moment. To establish that these nonhumans use language, remember, and plan, all you really need to do is spend a few days with a dog. Watch a dog come up with really clever plans for appropriating a coveted bone or toy from his sibling, or walk a dog who remembers where that lovely dead thing she rolled in last week was, or see how excited the dog gets when she recognizes the drive to the dog beach?

I could list, literally, thousands of examples from my own experience, reading, research, and students’ and friends’ stories. So could anyone who has ever paid much attention to dogs, elephants, chimps, whales, prairie dogs, birds, or any of the many other nonhumans who use language. Memory is essential to learning anything; and it is clear that millions of critters, but especially, and most near and dear to my heart, dogs, learn, remember, plan, use tools, problem-solve, and manipulate humans.

book cover of Beyond Words by Carl Safina My favorite comment on the interview came from an NPR listener who wrote that “It was the equivalent of interviewing an expert on evolutionary biology who never reads novels to get his opinions about how novelists can write better stories.” Yup. Stick to what you know: make-believe. Another good response is this column about why it matters when a famous writer dismisses evolution.

If you want to learn about language, read Chasing Doctor Doolittle or Beyond Words, both beautiful books about what language is and how various nonhumans use it. I’ve written several posts on this blog that address human communication with dogs and dogs’ ability to learn to understand human language. (I’ve never claimed that dogs have speech, and I do know the difference.) You can find those by searching this blog site.

 

Miscommunication

IMG_3201I was on deadline, struggling to communicate with my computer (and failing). Cali came over and ever-so-gently nudged me. I patted her and kept working. Another nudge. I had taken a ball-throwing break about 10 minutes earlier, so I distractedly said, “Not now,” and kept working.

Another nudge. I ignored her. More nudges. Insistent, but so, so gentle and sweet. I patted her, told her to wait a few minutes, told her she was cute. Not what she wanted. This went on for about 10 minutes, I’m embarrassed to admit.

Finally, deciding that rebooting my computer was the only possible step, I shut everything down, rebooted, and got up. “OK, Cali, where’s your ball?” I asked, wandering outside.

Cali wasn’t outside. Neither was her ball. I called her again and looked around the yard. No Cali, no ball.

IMG_3195I went inside. Cali was standing in front of the sofa. She came to me, then walked back to the sofa. Touched it gently. Looked under it. Touched it. Looked at me.

The ball was under the sofa. Actually two balls were under the sofa, one dry, dusty, covered with tufts of fur. So much for my housekeeping skills. And my communication skills.

I gave her back the ball. She graciously allowed me to throw it twice, but really, all she wanted was her ball. And her long-lost second ball. She happily stretched out in the yard nuzzling the balls as I went back to work.

I’m constantly amazed by how clearly our dogs communicate — if we’re paying attention. And of course, this clear and detailed exchange reveals how little actual words matter to human-dog conversations. No, our communication does not suffer from dogs’ inability to speak human language. It suffers from our inability to pay attention, to focus on what they are saying — without words, but with eloquence nonetheless.

Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words

CHaserAmazing dog. Amazing and super-friendly author. I got in touch w/Dr. Pilley after reading the book (and his research papers) and he did a Skype conversation with a class I was teaching on dog-human communication. He is one in a million, as is Chaser. He is such a great example of positive training that respects a dog and her abilities… and he is a fantastic teacher as well.
No one is surprised to hear that a border collie is intelligent and learns easily. But Chaser has gone far beyond what any other dog has been documented to learn in terms of human language comprehension. Dr. Pilley set out to teach her as many words as he could — names of objects — after reading the dismissive comments that greeted publications describing the accomplishments of Rico, a border collie in Germany who learned several hundred words. Dr. Pilley analyzed the linguists’ and other academics’ critiques of the training and testing of Rico — and set out to train his dog in a way that addressed all of their objections. And he accomplished his goal. (An interesting chapter in the book describes the resistance he faced when attempting to publish his initial results.) The opposition to admitting that any creature but humans can use language is still deeply entrenched.
But it’s also dead wrong. Chaser truly does understand human language. She learned and retains the names of more than a thousand items. She has demonstrated her ability to categorize them, grouping round bouncy things into the “ball” category and flat flying things into the “Frisbee” category, for example. And, like most dogs, she clearly distinguishes the category of “my toys” from “things in the house that I’d like to chew but am not allowed to chew.”
But Dr. Pilley realized that he had not pushed the boundaries of Chaser’s abilities. So, they tackled grammar next. Chaser understands the concepts of subject, verb, object — and indirect object. As an editor and college instructor, I have to point out that many writers and college students do not reach Chaser’s level of grammatical knowledge.
Toward the end of the book, Dr. Pilley describes his initial attempts to teach Chaser to imitate long, complex strings of behaviors. His description inspired me to try simple imitation games with my dogs, which have been fun and very funny.
The best part about this book though, is its constant message: Keep training fun and rewarding for the dog; make it a game; play to your dog’s strengths and preferences and, most important, make sure she has time do play and engage in her favorite activities. For Chaser, that means regular opportunities to herd sheep at a near