Talking Dogs?

There are all kinds of dogs in this world.  Tired feet or “barking dogs”are a common complaint for many people,  especially those who have to stand for long periods of time (such as cashiers and traffic cops) or walk long distances (such as restaurant servers and postal workers).   Other dogs are man’s best friend, barking to be let outside, for food, or at other dogs but have become our most favorite pets.  And….who does not like a really good hot dog, it just barks for attention!  While prairie dogs do not bark, there are recent reports that they might use utterances in a language for communication similar to  humans.   We have heard before that many types animals seem capable of bridging the language barrier and their attempts at speaking like us make them quite irresistible. It’s not just a matter of being able to make the sounds. To really count as talking, the animals would have to understand what they mean by using a language.  Animals as diverse as elephants and parrots can mimic the sounds of human speech.   But can any of them understand what they are saying?  The truth seems to be that some animals can mimic the sounds of human speech, but only a tiny minority can talk meaningfully as humans do. These less capable animals are just as fascinating as the truly skilled, because they could reveal how our own language skills evolved.

Dr. Constantine “Con” Slobodchikoff, an emeritis professor of referential communication at the Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.  Referential communication is a skill that crosses several different language components, including semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. Semantics is a system of rules that govern the meaning or content of words and their combinations. It involves how one uses language to communicate an idea.  Dr. Slobodchikoff has been studying the Gunnison species of the prairie dog and their communication skills.  Gunnison’s prairie dog is one of five species of the prairie dog. This species belongs to the squirrel family of rodents, and are predominantly related to the North American and Eurasian ground squirrels.  He started studying prairie dog language 30 years ago after scientists reported that other ground squirrels had different alarm calls to warn each other of flying predators such as hawks and eagles, versus predators on the ground, such as coyotes or badgers.  Researchers feel that prairie dogs are ideal animals to study because they are very living in small groups within a larger colony which could be likened to a town and they never leave their town as they have built elaborate series of tunnels and underground complexes.  Dr. Slobodchikoff’s video where he explains his theory on the communication among these animals, its about 8-9 minutes long be worth the time spent. Click on his picture to watch the video.

On an typical research day in the field with 3-4 graduate students or volunteers, he would visit one of the six research colonies.  They usually arrived in the predawn hours, climbed into their observation towers well before the animals woke up for the day.  In the beginning, Slobodchikoff and his colleagues first trapped the prairie dogs and painted them with fur dye so that they could identify individual animals. Subsequently, they recorded the calls of these individual animals in the presence of various predators and watched their reactions to the call.  Usually they would escape with a specific pattern.  Once they had recorded the utterances, the researchers would then playback these recordings and observe the escape routes and they matched the earlier ones used in response to the live utterances.  Thus, there is information in these distinctive calls.  Later, they found that the animals made distinctive calls that distinguish among a wide array of animals, including coyotes, domestic dogs and humans. The patterns are so distinct that human visitors brought to observe the prairie dog colony can typically learn them within two hours.  After more research, they noticed that the animals made slightly different calls when different individuals of the same species went by.  He recalled  “What if they’re describing the physical features of each predator?'”  He and his team conducted experiments where they paraded dogs of different colours and sizes and various humans wearing different clothes past the colony. They recorded the prairie dogs’ calls, analyzed them with a computer, and were astonished by the results.  So he devised a test. He had four (human) volunteers walk through a prairie dog village, and he dressed all the humans exactly the same except for their shirts. Each volunteer walked through the community four times: once in a blue shirt, once in a yellow, once in green and once in gray.  He found, to his delight, that the calls broke down into groups based on the color of the volunteer’s shirt. “I was astounded,” says Slobodchikoff. But what astounded him even more, was that further analysis revealed that the calls also clustered based on other characteristics, like the height of the human. “Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow,’ ” says Slobodchikoff.

References:

Ambrud, J. & Krulwich, R. (2011). New Language Disrovered:  Prairiedogese.  Radiolab. Retrieved May 23, 2017.

Dasgupta, S. (2015). Can Animals talk and use language like humans? Retrieved May 22, 2017.

Halloway, B. (2017). Dogish?  The Halloway Quarterly.  Retrieved May 23, 2017.

Jabr, F. (2017).  Can Prairie Dogs Talk?  New York Times.  Retrieved May 22, 2017.  

Videos:

Slobodchikoff, C. (2011). Prairie Dogs: America’s Meerkats – Language.  Retrieved May 22, 2017.

 

About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.