Galway had its first Dog Expo this summer. I don’t have a dog, but I went with a friend who does. It was all fine fun until they started putting hats and boots on the dogs and catwalking them around the stage to bad dance music. Somewhat less silly was a tricks competition in which close communication between humans and dogs led variously to modest success, rewards, confusion, and disappointment.
Contrived acts aside, the communicative bond between the two species has long fascinated humans. I read Man Meets Dog (1950) by Konrad Lorenz lately and thought the following passage worth posting:
It is a fallacy that dogs only understand the tone of a word and are deaf to the articulation. The well-known animal psychologist, [Viktor] Sarris, proved this indisputably with three Alsatians, called Harris, Aris and Paris. On command from their master, ‘Harris (Aris, Paris), Go to your basket’, the dog addressed and that one only would get up unfailingly and walk sadly but obediently to his bed. The order was carried out just as faithfully when it was issued from the next room whence an accompanying involuntary signal was out of the question.
It sometimes seems to me that the word recognition of a clever dog which is firmly attached to its master extends even to whole sentences. The words, ‘I must go now’ would bring Tito and Stasi [an Alsatian and an Alsatian/Chow crossbreed, respectively] to their feet at once even when I exercised great self-control and spoke without special accentuation; on the other hand, none of these words, spoken in a different connection, elicited any response from them.
Lorenz describes a report from Annie Eisenmenger, who co-illustrated the book, about her Schnauzer, Affi. Supposedly, Affi recognised the words Katzi, Spatzi, Eichkatzi (diminutives of kitten, sparrow, squirrel) and Nazi, which was the name of Eisenmenger’s pet hedgehog and had “no political meaning in those days”.
Imagine: Nazi the hedgehog. Anyway, Affi reacted differently to these words, for example running from tree to tree at the sound of Eichkatzi; and, upon hearing Nazi, rushing to a rubbish heap where a hedgehog lived.
Lorenz writes that Affi “knew the names of at least nine people, and would run across the room to them if their names were spoken. She never made a mistake.” This is a second-hand anecdote, but Lorenz says he is confident of its truthfulness. Stressing the crucial difference between the behaviour of an animal in the lab and that of one who is free to accompany its human companion, Lorenz adds:
With the dog, one is seldom given the chance of achieving high feats of word recognition in the laboratory, since the necessary interest is lacking . . . . Every dog-owner is familiar with a certain behaviour in dogs which can never be reproduced under laboratory conditions. The owner says, without special intonation and avoiding mention of the dog’s name, ‘I don’t know whether I’ll take him or not.’ At once the dog is on the spot, wagging his tail and dancing with excitement, for he already senses a walk. Had his master said, ‘I suppose I must take him out now,’ the dog would have got up resignedly without special interest. Should his master say, ‘I don’t think I’ll take him, after all,’ the expectantly pricked ears will drop sadly, though the dog’s eyes will remain hopefully fixed on his master.
This subtlety of understanding is a far cry from the Far Side cartoon in which Gary Larson pokes fun at the tendency some people exhibit to harangue their dogs at complicated length:
Many animals-and-human-language stories are of the YouTube Wunderhund variety: crude phonetic imitation. Others emphasise vocabulary. Some dogs can recognise hundreds of words, but to claim that this means a dog is as intelligent or linguistically advanced as a two-year-old human is pretty silly and meaningless, I think, and unfair to both dogs and people. It implies a facile interpretation of human and animal intelligence, an impoverished misinterpretation of language, and, for good measure, a hopeless anthropocentrism.
The comparison is misleading because it isolates one modest parameter — vocabulary, or perhaps just recognition of aural stimuli — and omits many other relevant ones. Syntax, for example, is a different matter altogether. I really don’t think dogs do grammar; kids begin to employ it from a very early age.
Dogs are intelligent animals and very sensitive to people’s cues, but the degree to which they understand our utterances is easily overstated and difficult to settle. A discussion at the Straight Dope Message Board shows how divided common opinion is. (The chat is also worth browsing for some of the anecdotes, if you’re into that sort of thing.)
Do you own or know a dog, and if so how highly would you rate its inter-species communication skills?
Edit: Arnold Zwicky has posted a Wondermark cartoon on the subject, followed by a short discussion, at his language blog.