Bunny’s YouTube videos show her communicating with a range of wants and needs, including “play,” “food,” or “outside” requests. There are even hints that it is able to grasp sentence structure and word order, a complex linguistic concept that has been shown to be understood by a few specially trained animals (mostly apes).
So, as someone who writes about canine science, what do I understand from all of this? Although I commend the human rabbit companion for her incredible dedication to this wonderful dog, I find myself… surprisingly disappointed.
First, because we’ve been here before. As I explain in my book WondersExperimental devices like Bunny have a rich history, going back to Sir John Lubbock (the 19th century inventor of the Bank Holiday among many others) who trained his dog to pick up small cues to express his wishes (“BONE” – like in ‘bone’) and needs (‘OUT’ – like ‘I need to pee’).
Subsequent iterations of the same experience saw animals trained to use soundboards (such as those used by Bunny above) or even, in the case of primates, teaching American Sign Language, most successful to Coco the gorilla.
But is this really human language, as you or you understand it? Just as in Lubbock’s time, familiar criticisms about the authenticity of the rabbit’s gift began to surface. The first relates to sample sizes. It takes a lot of time to train an animal to use sound boards and this limits the number of dogs participating in repeatable experiments.
Another criticism is that, try as best you can, humans (who understandably respond to the call) may see more importance in the moment of positive button pressing than in the nine experiences in which buttons were meaninglessly pressed.
Social media brings with it new problems. For example, how do we ensure that all of Bunny’s attempts at communication (good and bad) make it online? And does the fact that dog sound boards are now a marketable product give us confidence that everything in the videos is as pictured?
Perhaps the most long-standing criticism of Bunny’s experimental setup is that, frankly, button-pressing animals can learn to perform well on a soundboard, regardless of whether or not they realize they’re using human words. To some, this criticism may seem subtle, but it is really important if we want to understand objectively what dogs may or may not be capable of.
As Alexandra Horowitz, a dog cognition expert, says: “A lyre bird imitates someone shouting ‘wood’ because they have heard someone shout ‘wood’ is not the same as saying ‘wood!’ ‘ ‘I deeply agree with this bird, having written about the mistakes science has made in the past–not least with Clever Hans, the mathematician’s horse who wasn’t.
So, I’m a little frustrated, yeah. But there is one more thing as well…
As I said, I salute my fellow human builder for the love and devotion she has shown, but the other thing that bothers me is the expected human centralization in everything. Why, in the age of Lubbock and in the age of social media, are we so intent on dogs mastering human language? Could our relationship with one another be better served by learning more about our relationship?
Because dogs, quite obviously, are masters of their own methods of communication, which can be easily read by humans who take the time to research. Want to learn the language of dogs? Then sit down, stay … Read …
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How does the dog speak?
Dogs are masters of complex communication. Here are some helpful tips to help you understand the needs of your loving companion.
Just like humans, dogs use their eyes to communicate. Look for moments when your dog’s eyes are almonds and the eyelids are partially closed. Look for slow flashes in your direction. These looks are all about momentary reassurance and connection between you and your soulmate.
Warm glances from eyes like these can lead to immediate physiological changes in the brains of both dogs and humans. In one study, half an hour of mutual staring was all it took to see levels of oxytocin (a hormone associated with mammals) more than double. The effect on humans was more pronounced.
Mark Pekoff writes: “The tail can be an excellent barometer of how a dog is feeling.” secret dogs. His advice is to look for “slight vibrations” that temporarily deliver a “hello there…” to those around. Slow vibrations (at half mast) can be a sign of temporary insecurity and can be followed by intense, restrained vibrations that indicate a fight-or-flight response is imminent. In general, wide shaking is friendly shaking.
Interestingly enough, dogs wag their tails with the kind of asymmetry that other dogs can pick up on. Left-leaning tremors are associated with negative emotions; Orgasms tilted to the right, more positive.
Bark and flesh
According to psychologist Stanley Coren, even people who have spent very little time around dogs know the nuances of dogs barking, howling and whining, and understand what these calls mean. Deeper barks (which impart greater volume and travel farther) are reserved for aggressive interactions (or, in my case, Amazon delivery drivers); sharp and frequent barking indicates stress or urgency; A pair of short, mid-range barks are often preceded by a warm, tail-wagging greeting.
Corinne wrote: “The stutter bark, which looks something like ‘Harr-ruff’… is usually given with front legs flat on the ground and rear raised and simply means, ‘Let’s play!'” Also known as “play-bow,” this is another communication tool that dogs use to signal to each other that they are in the mood for fun.
Dogs are so naturally so adapted to a play arch position that humans, provided they are mobile enough to reach the ground, can elicit play with dogs simply by acting out themselves.
According to Horowitz (in the Book of Enlightenment inside a dog), the play behaviors of dogs are so complex and complex that they suggest that dogs are much deeper thinkers than many scientists once thought, and may match (or even exceed) the complex cognitive skills of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas.
“Their skills in using…play cues suggest that they may have a rudimentary theory of mind: the knowledge that there is an intermediate component between other dogs and their actions.” In other words, through play, dogs are able to think not only of their own thoughts but also the thoughts of others, and adjust their message accordingly.
This is how dogs really talk. on their own terms. They clearly have a lot to say.
Wonderdog: How the science of dogs changed the science of life By Jules Howard Now out (£17.99, Bloomsbury Sigma).
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