Earlier this week, I asked — only semi-whimsically — if the day might come when dogs start speaking, actually speaking.
I wondered what dogs might say, and whether, once dogs became verbal, we humans would actually listen, as opposed to just giggling and taking video and posting it on YouTube.
It would probably be far in the future when that happens — and only assuming we humans can keep the planet together that long.
But it’s not too early to start thinking about it, at least semi-whimsically, including the very real possibility that — given dogs tend to reflect us more and more as time goes by — they could end up talking to us as we’ve been talking to them all these years.
And wouldn’t that be awful?
These, as I see it, are the two worst-case scenarios:
One, they will be bossy-assed nags, telling us, far more often than necessary, what to do: “No!” “Stop that!” “Leave it!” Hush!” “Get down!” “Sit!” “Stay!”
Two, they will be sappy, high-pitched baby talkers: “You’re such a cute human. Yes, you are! You’re the cutest little mushy face human in the world, with your mushy-mush-mush little face. It’s the mushiest little face I ever did see. Yes it is! You’re a good little human. Aren’t you? Yes! Yee-ess! Yes you are!”
Those, while annoying extremes, are highly common approaches when it comes to how we humans speak to our dogs.
Some of us are order-dispensing dictators who only talk to our dogs when issuing commands.
Some of us are babblers, spewing a non-stop stream of syrupy praise and meaningless drivel.
A lot of us are both, myself included, especially in the privacy of my home. Sometimes, I have to stop myself from saying things like “Who’s the handsomest dog in the land? Who’s a big boy? Who’s a genius? Ace is. Yes, Acey is.”
Sometimes, I realize several days have gone by when the only words I’ve voiced to Ace are orders, at which point I lapse into baby talk to make up for it.
He is probably convinced I am passive-aggressive, if not bi-polar.
There are, thankfully, some in-betweens when it comes to talking to one’s dog, and one of our favorite dog writers — by which we mean a human who writes about dogs — took a look at some of those variations in an essay posted recently on TheDodo.com, a website that looks at how we can better understand animals and improve our relationships with them.
Alexandra Horowitz is the author of “Inside of a Dog” and runs the the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, Columbia University. She has spent 15 years studying what dogs might be trying to say to us, but recently she did some cursory research into what we say to them.
“… (O)ver the last months I have been doing some top-secret quasi-science. That is, I’ve been gathering data in my neighborhood in New York City by eavesdropping on the things people say to their dogs. Humans are a species which anthropomorphizes dogs to incredible degrees (as can be attested to by anyone who has seen a pug forced to dress like Winston Churchill). Sure, we know they aren’t really small, furry people (well, most of us seem to know this), but great numbers of people would willingly attest to their dogs being “their children” — or at least claim to think of them as members of their family. But do we really treat them like little people? I figured that some clue to that would come in how we speak to them.”
Horowitz did some eavesdropping on people out with their dogs in public, making notes of the one-sided conversations she overheard at parks and on sidewalks.
“And, oh, there were many utterances: on every walk I’ve taken in the last months, on a commute, to the store, or out with my own pups, I encountered people with dogs. Some pass silently, but many are in apparent constant dialogue with the pup at the end of the leash. What the dog-talk I’ve gathered shows is not how much we talk to dogs, nor the percentage of people who do so talk, but the kinds of things we say to dogs.”
She wrote that, based on what she heard, how we talk to dogs falls into five categories:
1. The “Almost Realistic,” or talking to a dog as if he mostly understands what you are saying (with grown-up words, but not words so big he needs a dictionary), as in “Do you want another treat?” (The question that never needs asking.)
2. “Momentarily Confusing Dog With A 2-Year-Old Kid,” as in “Who wants a treatie-weetie? Who does? Who? Who?” (For some reason, no matter how old dogs get, many of us keep talking to them this way, probably because it makes their tails wag.)
3. “Assuming Extravagant Powers Of Understanding:” This is another one I engage in simply because you never know how much they might be taking in: “C’mon Ace, we’re going to stop at the drug store, visit grandma, and go to the park. The duration of the last stop might be limited, because Doppler radar says a storm might be approaching the area.
4. “Totally Inexplicable:” The example Horowitz cites is “Be a man.” (That’s a phrase that bugs me almost as much as “man up” and, worse yet, “grow a pair.” I think a man is the last thing a dog should want to be, and for man to tell a dog to “grow a pair” is just too full of irony to even comment on. I have no problem, however, with “Grow a pear,” and consider it to be legitimate advice.)
5. “Ongoing (One-way) Conversation:” These are those non-stop talkers who conduct a monologue as they walk through the park with their dogs, as in, “Let’s go down the hill and see if your friend Max is there. It would be nice to see Max, wouldn’t it? Remember the time you and Max went swimming? What fun you had. Speaking of fun, do you want to play some tug of war when we get back home? Oh look, there’s Max!”
As Horowitz notes, all of us dog-talkers, and especially that last group, are really talking to ourselves, providing an ongoing narrative of what we are doing and what’s going on in our heads. We are thinking out loud, and our dogs are the victims/beneficiaries of that.
“We talk to dogs not as if they are people, but as if they are the invisible person inside of our own heads. Our remarks to them are our thoughts, articulated… Many of our thoughts while we walk our dogs are not so profound, but they are a running commentary on our days, which serves to lend meaning to ordinary activities …”
(Sounds kind of like Facebook, doesn’t it?)
As with that earlier post that got me started talking about dog talking, this one reminds me of a song, too. I used it in a video I made for a photo exhibit about Baltimore dogs a few years back. The song is called “Talkin’ to the Dog.”
Posted by John Woestendiek January 24th, 2014 under Muttsblog, videos.
Tags: alexandra horowitz, animals, babbling, baby talk, behavior, cognition, commands, communication, dog, dog cognition lab, dog talk, dogs, dogs talking, echo, evolution, evolve, future, habits, how we talk to dogs, humans, interaction, listening, mimicry, orders, parks, pets, public, speak, speaking, streets, styles, talking, talking dogs, talking to dogs, talking to the dog, the dodo.com, thedodo, thoughts, traits, verbal, voice, what we say to dogs, words
Willow’s owner claims her dog can read — only three phrases, but still.
What do you think? Is the dog actually reading the words? Or is something else at play?
Posted by John Woestendiek October 10th, 2009 under Muttsblog, videos.
Tags: animals, cards, commands, dog, dogs, learning, nbc, pets, read, reading, reads, skills, today show, tricks, video, willow, words