Reading 24

Can Dogs Talk?

The following passage is adapted from an article entitled “Dogs as Smart as Two-Year Old Kids” (2009 by Jeanna Bryner).

  1. Maya, a noisy, seven-year-old
  2. pooch, looks straight at me. And
  3. with just a little prompting from
  4. her owner says, “I love you.”
  5. Actually, she says “Ahh rooo uuu!”
  6. Maya is working hard to produce
  7. what sounds like real speech.
  8. “She makes these sounds that
  9. really, really sound like words to
  10. everyone who hears her, but I
  11. think you have to believe,” says
  12. her owner, Judy Brookes.
  13. You’ve probably seen this sort of
  14. scene on television. These dog
  15. owners may be onto something:
  16. Psychologist and dog expert
  17. Stanley Coren of the University of
  18. British Columbia tells the story
  19. of a colleague who always greeted
  20. her dog, Brandy, with a cheerful,
  21. two-syllable “Hel-lo!” It wasn’t
  22. long until Brandy returned the
  23. greeting, which sounded very
  24. much like her owner’s salutation.
  25. But do dogs really talk? In 1912
  26. Harry Miles Johnson of Johns
  27. Hopkins University said,
  28. emphatically, “no.” He generally
  29. agreed with the findings of Oskar
  30. Pfungst of the Institute of
  31. Psychology at the University of
  32. Berlin who studied a dog famous
  33. for its large vocabulary. The dog’s
  34. speech is “the production of vocal
  35. sounds which produce illusion in
  36. the hearer,” Johnson wrote. He
  37. went on to warn that we should
  38. not be surprised if “scientists of
  39. a certain class… proclaim that
  40. they have completely demonstrated
  41. the presence in lower animals of
  42. ‘intelligent imitation’.”
  43. Nothing in the last century has
  44. really changed that scientific
  45. opinion. So what are Maya and her
  46. cousins doing? It’s more
  47. appropriate to call it imitating than
  48. talking, says Gary Lucas, a
  49. psychology scholar at Indiana
  50. University. Dogs vocalize with each
  51. other to convey emotions—and
  52. they express their emotions by
  53. varying their tones. So it pays for
  54. dogs to be sensitive to different
  55. tones. Dogs are able to imitate
  56. humans as well as they do because
  57. they pick up on the differences in
  58. our tonal patterns.
  59. Lucas likens this behavior to that
  60. of bonobos, primates that can
  61. imitate some tonal patterns,
  62. including vowel sounds, pitch
  63. changes, and rhythms. “The vocal
  64. skills of some dogs and cats suggest
  65. that they might also have some
  66. selective tonal imitation skills,”
  67. he says. What’s happening between
  68. dog and owner-turned-voice-coach
  69. is fairly straightforward: Owner
  70. hears the dog making a sound that
  71. resembles a phrase, says the
  72. phrase back to the dog, who then
  73. repeats the sound and is rewarded
  74. with a treat. Eventually the dog
  75. learns a modified version of her
  76. original sound. As Lucas puts it,
  77. “dogs have limited vocal imitation
  78. skills, so these sounds usually need
  79. to be shaped by selective attention
  80. and social reward.”
  81. A pug that says, ‘I love you’ is very
  82. cute, but the pug has no idea what
  83. it means,” Coren says. “If dogs
  84. could talk, they would tell you,
  85. ‘I’m just in it for the cookies.’”
  86. Scientists have made some
  87. progress in their study of this
  88. important subject: They’ve learned
  89. why dogs, and other animals, have
  90. rather poor pronunciation. They
  91. “don’t use their tongues and lips
  92. very well, and that makes it difficult
  93. for them to match many of the
  94. sounds that their human partners
  95. make,” Lucas says. “Try saying
  96. ‘puppy’ without using your lips
  97. and tongue.”
  98. Despite what they may lack in the
  99. elocution department, dogs do
  100. communicate their feelings to
  101. humans as well as read our cues,
  102. thanks to domestication, Julia
  103. Riedel and colleagues of the Max
  104. Planck Institute for Evolutionary
  105. Anthropology reported. Dogs
  106. follow people’s pointing, body
  107. posture, the direction of their gaze,
  108. and touches for cues to find hidden
  109. food. They also gaze at their trainer
  110. when they need more information.
  111. Some dogs learn to understand an
  112. impressive number of words, as
  113. well. A gifted border collie, Rico,
  114. mastered the names of more than
  115. 200 objects using a technique
  116. called fast-tracking that small
  117. children also employ. Researchers
  118. introduced a novel item into Rico’s
  119. mix of toys then asked him to
  120. retrieve it. He did so by associating
  121. the unfamiliar name with the
  122. unfamiliar object. He even
  123. remembered the name of the toy
  124. a month later.
  125. “That’s the kind of fast-tracking
  126. or exclusionary learning, which we
  127. used to think only human beings
  128. and the talking apes could use,”
  129. Coren says. “For the psychologists
  130. it was, ‘Wow, how did he learn
  131. that word?!’”