Talking Dog Language

Beagle with its ears somehow up like wings as it listens

Gary Larson drew a Far Side cartoon I’ll never forget. It’s one among many memorable ones, actually. I can’t reproduce it here because of copyright laws and the fact that I’d like to keep my house instead of giving it to Larson’s lawyer.

In the comic, a man is admonishing his dog, Ginger. In the first panel, we see in the word bubble that the man’s telling Ginger to stay out of the garbage because he’s had it! The second panel shows what Ginger hears. “Blah blah blah Ginger, blah blah, blah blah blah Ginger!”

It made every dog owner laugh. Larson’s work always smacked of the absurd, Like dinosaurs smoking (the real reason they’re extinct) and a cow lookout watching for cars. She warns the others so they’ll drop down to all four hooves and moo when there are human witnesses. That way, we’d never know they were secretly planning a coup. But this one seemed probable. Dogs recognize their own name and sense the excitement in our voice when we ask them if they want a cookie or to go for a walk. But how could a dog really know what we were saying?

Now, scientists have proven that Ginger understood more than she was letting on. She just really liked getting into the trash.

Reported by Scientific American, a couple of researchers got the idea when they moved from Mexico to Hungary with their dogs. They noticed how different it felt to be embedded in a culture with another language. And they wondered whether their dogs noticed the change in languages too.

The Study

By outfitting dogs with headphones (SIDEBAR: I would watch a show titled Dogs With Headphones) they tracked the dogs’ brain activity based on changes in language. The dogs also listened to gibberish in their native language and in the foreign tongue. Results showed that they recognized their own language and could distinguish between a real sentence and blah blah blah.

This is the first study to prove that a non-human brain can distinguish between languages.

Future research will try to determine whether dogs’ closeness with humans over eons has led to this ability. Canines have been sitting with us at firesides for thousands of years. More fresh research shows we domesticated dogs by sharing our extra meat with them during the last ice age. That’s how they came to join us in our caves eventually leading to the formation of the rock band, Three Dog Night.

If you’ve ever had a dog, you know how hard they try to understand you. We talk to them and they truly listen. They want to communicate. It’s their fondest wish after being fed and told they’re a good boy or girl. Throwing a tennis ball and giving them a favorite stuffy are definitely high on the list, too.

We are cat people by default. Back when we regularly rode our motorcycles, we thought it would be unfair to leave a dog home alone so often. Cats fit our lifestyle now, too. We are also indoorsy and prone to coughing up hairballs.

The app stores feature dog-to-human translators that claim to tell you what your dog is saying. But it appears that dogs already have a human-to-dog translator built in. We humans just have to figure out how to use it.

3 thoughts on “Talking Dog Language”

  1. I have often said, and I’m sure I picked it up elsewhere, “Dog is God spelled backwards.” Most of them set a very high standard with their unconditional love. I am a dog person but my pal, John picked up a barn cat and it was very dog like and understood, it seemed his every word. It was a tabby and loved nothing more than to catch and present any rodent or invader that entered their domicile at John’s feet and sit proudly with the captive. John, having been raised on a farm in Czechoslovakia with dirt floors, thought nothing of it. The two of them were inseparable. John, not in his eighties, had Chester for twelve long years and always followed him upstairs to bed each night where he slept loyally with his room mate each night and nuzzled him gently awake each morning. He would play fetch with a stuffed mouse on a string. John knew his animals and his love for that cat was palpable. I was always a welcome guest because Chester came to knew me and enjoyed playing when I would visit. Love both animals but dogs are my soft spot and while my own now lives in California awaiting my return, he has a wonderful life there with my old roomy Jeff. My building has a 25 dog limit, and Ollie, a rescue over a hundred pounds, being a Shepherd/Basset mix, was over the Co-Op’s weight limit. He lives with two retirees who are dear friends and Jeff who is a day-trader and his constant companion. He is highly socialized, loving and delightfully handsome and well behaved. For as long as we have them, they are, IMHO, heaven sent blessings. They do require work. If you don’t have the time, don’t get one. It’s not fair to the dog and that is when problems can begin. Hire a trainer. Few know how to properly train animals. If not, at least read up on it. The rewards will be manifold for many years if the hard work is put in early. Also remember that older dogs need adopting as well, and are the hardest to find new homes for for fear of expense for care and early loss. Another great blog, Lisa. Love your work.

    1. Ollie is one of the sweetest dogs I’ve ever met. You’ve done right by him, Ed. Can’t wait for you to meet Cuddles! I hope he’s not as skittish by then.

  2. For those who own or have ever worked with a service dog in training will tell you that they understand far more than we give them credit for. A report from many years ago indicated that a dog can recognize about 200 words (excluding those preprogrammed ones I.E. treat, cookie, walk, car ride, belly rub ETC) and even in different languages. There is a guide dog training school in Montreal where the dogs are trained using the french language and commands. The key to communicating with a dog is in its presentation for example, if you want your dog to stay out of the garbage you don’t say “stay out of the garbage” you simply say “no” while there doing something you don’t want them to do. Part of my education with my various guide dogs has included the psychology on communications and interactions with your dog since we rely on them for our safety.

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