Do dogs get a ruff deal, linguistically speaking?

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.

The communicative bond between humans and dogs has long fascinated us. 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 to harangue 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, I think, and unfair to both dogs and people. It rests on a facile interpretation of intelligence (human and animal), an impoverished misinterpretation of language, and 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 don’t think dogs do grammar, whereas 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.

16 Responses to Do dogs get a ruff deal, linguistically speaking?

  1. johnwcowan says:

    Nazi was a Bavarian nickname for Ignaz, the German form of Ignatius.

  2. Stan says:

    John, I would never have guessed. Thanks, as always, for sharing these nuggets.

  3. iamreddave says:

    “Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs: You did your major work applying game theory to the language of killer whales.
    James R. Lesko: Well, it seemed cheaper than applying it to roulette
    Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs: Did you actually *succeed* in making positive contact with the whales?
    James R. Lesko: Only with the emotionally disturbed.
    Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs: How were you able to determine that?
    James R. Lesko: We talked!”

    from creature feature Phase IV

  4. Stan says:

    That’s a great bit of B-movie dialogue, David! I had forgotten it, though I wrote a short piece about Phase IV for a couple of months ago. A shame it’s the only feature film Saul Bass directed, and that the finale was butchered before release.

  5. Sylvia says:

    Quite an interesting thing happened the other day here. My landlord and I were chatting and petting the dogs. Finally he had to go back to what he was doing, and he said to one of the dogs, “Are you going to stay here or do you want to help me clean the garage?” The dog instantly, with obvious decision, turned and came to me. It was as though he understood the question perfectly. I don’t think he understood the words, since it was so complex, but he certainly understood the purport, i.e. that there was no fun to be had where his master was going.

    And as I saw on Twitter, dolphins have learned dozens of human words, and we have learned no Dolphin. Who are the intelligent ones?? ;)

  6. Great article. I love reading about dogs. One of my most popular posts on my blog is one called ‘How to describe dogs’. It merely recaps phrases used by different authors to discuss dogs in their books. I’m constantly amazed by how many people read that little post!

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    Very interesting post, Stan.

    One of my dogs knew all 10 of her tiny stuffed animals by name and would bring them on command to my feet.

    My current dog, Ansa, does her absolute best to say “good morning” in response to mine. It comes out “Yaw, Yaaaw-yaw” but is a fine effort to imitate me, a courtesy I do not afford her.

    Her understanding of vocabulary is outstanding and her intuition to my intentions flabbergasts strangers.

    I often wonder how evolved us humans really are – I mean who is the slave to whom here?


  8. Stan says:

    Sylvia: Good anecdote! I wonder what it was about your landlord’s question that enabled the dog to interpret it so readily. Gesture, prosody, tone, keywords? I imagine the two have a close relationship; probably the dog picks up on a few different types of signal. Generous of the landlord to offer him a choice, too!

    Jacqui: Thanks, and welcome. I think the popularity of your post (which I just read, and enjoyed) owes at least partly to what you yourself say: people love reading about dogs! There is a reliable honesty, warmth, and attractiveness about their character. Lorenz’s book offers acute descriptions of their traits and appearance; so, to a lesser degree, does his earlier King Solomon’s Ring.

    WWW: Dogs’ ability to apprehend our speech seems particularly strong in the area of object recognition, which would be why their toys (and people’s names) recur in these accounts. Chaser, the border collie to whom I link in the post, supposedly knows over a thousand nouns. As to evolution, I think it makes sense to think of humans and dogs as having co-evolved to an extent since we first started hanging out together. Both sides see compromises and benefits.

  9. MM says:

    I think languagehat may have discussed Nazi, which is short for the name Ignaz, apparently.

  10. MM says:

    Sorry, did read other comments first, but I overlooked the first one.

  11. Sylvia says:

    Heh. I think dogs do understand what a question is by tone, same as we do (in English, anyway). I suspect the dog might have also picked up a slight tone of sarcasm and perhaps eye movements or gestures contrasting “here” and “garage.” It really was something, though, the way he listened attentively and moved so decisively. He understood all he needed to understand!

    New comment system?

  12. Stan says:

    MM: Ah, here it is. I’d missed that discussion somehow. Thanks for the pointer.

    Sylvia: That sounds plausible. It’s a pity he can’t tell us how (and how much) he understood!

  13. The Ridger says:

    “I often wonder how evolved us humans really are – I mean who is the slave to whom here?”

    Seriously? The one who hangs on the other’s every word and makes major cross-species efforts to please, or the one who may dote but is equally likely likely to kick, and understands little. You aren’t seriously asking?

    My last dog had a goodish-sized vocabulary, but she could be easily faked out by intonation when it came to whole sentences.

  14. […] also sometimes talks about animal communication on his site, Sentence First. Here he discusses the linguistic capabilities of dogs. I don’t remember the idea of animals hearing voices ever being discussed on these sites and […]

  15. […] items: I’ve written before about word recognition in dogs and the claims made for their command of human language. On Tumblr I posted another passage from […]

  16. […] Lorenz appeared here previously in 2011 when I quoted from Man Bites Dog in a post on dogs’ linguistic ability. The author’s breathless description of jackdaws playing with the wind, from the wonderful King […]

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