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Tag: communication

Retired professor foresees the day we’ll be able to talk with dogs — and it’s soon

slobodchikoff

A retired Northern Arizona University biology professor says a device that could provide humans with a basic idea of what dogs are thinking could be developed within the next 10 years, or even as few as two years.

Con Slobodchikoff says the device would decode a canine’s vocalizations, facial expressions and actions and then tell the human user what the dog is trying to say.

There are some far less scientific, far more gimmicky types of devices already on the market, but what Slobodchikoff is proposing — and attempting to raise money for — would be as simple as pointing your cell phone at your pet to get a translation of what he is trying to communicate.

Slobodchikoff, who spent decades researching prairie dog communication at NAU, says the technology would hinge on an artificial intelligence program that would learn to recognize animal sounds and actions through videos and pictures.

“The program would synthesize all of it, then tell the person the dog says ‘I want to go for a walk’ or ‘you’re scaring me, back off please,'” Slobodchikoff told the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff.

b8e37915bfa7749f147182db37a4dcebWe’d point out here that the average dog owner is probably already getting such messages from his dog non-verbally. And we’d guess that “let’s go for a walk” or “isn’t it time for dinner” would account for 90 percent of any messages the device picked up.

Then again, what dog owner doesn’t want to get a little deeper into his dog’s head.

People like to think of their dogs as thinking, feeling beings and want to respond to them in some way, Slobodchikoff said. “But they don’t know what their dogs are trying to say to them.”

He says between two million and three million dogs are euthanized each year for behavioral problems, and that most of those problems arise because of a lack of communication between people and their dogs.

Last year, Slobodchikoff started the company Zoolingua to develop animal communication technology.

The timeline for developing a working translation device depends on how much money he and his partners can raise, he said. “If we get a lot of money we can do it in two to five years, not as much money then it probably will be 10 years.”

He hopes to perfect a device for dogs, then expand it to cats, horses, other domestic animals, and possibly wild animals someday.

Before he retired from NAU about seven years ago, Slobodchikoff’s research focused on analyzing the calls of prairie dogs that live around Flagstaff.

screen-shot-2015-08-16-at-11-00-02-pmSlobodchikoff conducted experiments where he parsed out prairie dog calls and determined that the animals had different calls for different threats or predators, like humans, birds and coyotes.

Upon further analysis, he found that the prairie dogs’ alarm calls had a structure similar to the nouns and adjectives used in human sentences. The animals also had different dialects, he said. You can read more about his work with prairie dogs in this New York Times article.

chasing“People see … that they’re not just this nuisance ground squirrel that digs burrows. They really are a complex animal that has unique personalities. Hopefully people can relate to that in a different way so that makes them stop and think a little bit before they just decide to shoot one or poison one on their property just because they don’t like it.”

After retiring, Slobodchikoff wrote the book “Chasing Doctor Dolittle,” in which he explored the languages of everything from whales to honeybees.

“Many animals do have language but we humans simply have not been listening,” he said.

When something as simple as feeding the dog requires technology, we’re in trouble

Because your dog is not going to tell you that he has already been fed, a California company is introducing a “smart scoop” that, via bluetooth technology and an app, will let you know if that daily deed has been done.

That’s right. A smart dog food scoop. What’s next? Smart spatulas? Smart doorstops? Don’t tell me if they already exist; I don’t want to know.

Leave it to 21st Century America to come up with fancy, complex, intrusive and expensive communication technology to get the most mundane of chores accomplished when much simpler ways exist, such as a hand-written note, or perhaps the spoken word.

YaDoggie delivers its brand of dog food and treats to your door, and it plans to make the smart scoop available this spring to those who sign up for subscription plans.

The company showed off the scoop at the CES tech show in Las Vegas Monday.

scoopCNET described how it works:

“The YaDoggie scoop will connect to an iOS app on your phone through a Bluetooth connection. A small light on the scoop will turn green if no one has picked up the scoop and connected with the app that day, which means you’re good to feed your dog. The light will turn red if the app has detected that someone has used the scoop. The app will also tell you who has fed the dog based on whose phone is closest to the scoop.”

Now I understand that, in an active, on-the-go modern American family, multiple family members might take it upon themselves to feed a dog not knowing he had already been fed. I understand that such mundane matters aren’t always communicated between family members.

I can understand that happening even when it’s just a couple sharing a home with a dog.

And I’ll admit that even those who live alone, such as me, might forget if they’ve already fed their dog on a particular day. (My solution is attaching a Post-it note to my forehead.)

In all seriousness, though, there truly are simpler, no-cost ways, to accomplish this.

I don’t think that multiple feedings alone are the main cause of overweight dogs, as the company’s promotional video (above) implies. Treats, lack of exercise and table scraps are all probably bigger factors.

On its website, the company says the “simple, elegant scoop,” when paired with the app, notifies everyone in the family that the dog has been fed. It also lets the company “figure out when you’re running low on food so we can make sure you never run out.”

At least it doesn’t keep tabs on how many times you are feeding yourself, or sneaking treats for yourself, in the kitchen — at least as far I know.

The company says the battery in the scoop will last at least “a year, if not more” so there is “no need to worry about charging or replacing batteries.” It doesn’t make clear whether you get a new scoop after a year, or a new battery, or have to spend hours reprogramming everything, but it says more information will be coming out before the device hits the market.

I don’t want one. I’m old school enough to suspected that the more “smart” devices we come to rely on, the more stupid we are going to get. And I’m already getting stupid enough. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m walking around with a Post-it note on my head — until the dog tells me.

Nissan unveils a car (in concept) for dogs

It’s not being manufactured yet, but, if it were, there would probably be people lining up for this ultra dog-friendly Nissan.

The Nissan X-Trail 4Dogs, or Rogue as it’s known in the U.S., features dog bed, no-spill water bowl, automatic treat dispenser, clip on harness hooks, a slide out ramp, a shower and dryer and a two-way cam, allowing the driver in the front and the dog in the back to watch each other.

woof in advertisingThose last parts might be a bit much. (Not all dog tech, in our view, is good tech). But for the most part, these are some great ideas.

It’s all just a concept at this stage, developed by Nissan’s European division, Motor Trend reports.

And concepts, while they might get great mileage, won’t get you to the store.

Only of the concept car’s pet-specific features is currently available for purchase as a Nissan accessory: the dog guard above the rear seats.

Nissan-X-Trail-4DogsWhat’s the point of showing us a concept when the car’s not available?

For one thing, it helps create buzz and demand. For another, it lets us think such companies are thinking about us, even if it their project is mostly on the drawing board still. It also allows a company to show us a dream version, so vestiges of that image remain in our heads if and when the real one comes out.

Hopefully, the real thing — if it hits the market — will have a price some of us can actually afford, and will include something more than a $1,000 dog bowl. We’d suggest losing the automatic treat dispenser, too, and the dog-to-pilot cam and communication system.

It’s good to be able to keep an eye on your dog without fiddling with the rear view mirror. But do we really need to have our voices broadcast to them, all the way to the back seat? Do we really need to see them constantly on a 7-inch dashboard display?

And to they really need to see us, on a 10-inch LED screen in the cargo area?

It’s a little Big Brothery.

Nissan says the cargo area is meant to accommodate up to two dogs, but it looks to me like two large dogs would have to be crammed in. It’s even a little tight for a large and a medium.

All the doggie components were designed to be easily removed to free up cargo space for other items when the dog is not traveling with the family. The pet-friendly setup doesn’t interfere with accessing the vehicle’s spare tire, Nissan says.

The built-in shower and ramp are brilliant, and all in all a vehicle like this — at a reasonable price — could give Subaru a run for its money when it comes to the dog-friendliest cars.

So thanks for the video of what could be, Nissan, but don’t tease us. Get to work and give us the real deal.

(Woof in Advertising is a recurring ohmidog! feature that looks at how dogs are used in marketing. You can find earlier posts in this archived collection.)

Your attention, please …

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Look at you! Look at you! You are the cutest little reader I’ve ever seen. Yes you are. Yes you are! You’re just the sweetest reader ever. What a good reader! And, yes, you’re a genius, too. So very smart. Just a good good good pretty genius reader. Yes. Yes!

Talk to a baby like that (and most people do) and you’re going to get a reaction, studies show. You’re going to hold their attention, stimulate their brain, and (put most unscientifically) make them feel warm and bubbly inside.

Talk to a dog like that — especially if it’s a puppy and you have a higher-pitched, female type voice — and you’re going to achieve the same, a new study suggests. They’ll be more responsive and more likely to retain what (though it’s mostly gibberish) you’re saying.

Talk to your website readers like that, and they’re likely to think you’ve gone off the deep end, that you’re either stalking or patronizing them, and report you to the Internet police.

But you wouldn’t do that. Would you, pretty reader? Noooo. ‘Cuz you’re a good reader. Yes! You’re such a sweetie pie. Yes! Yes!

SONY DSCDogs, at least younger ones, find being talked to in a slow, sing-song, high-pitched, “baby-talk” type voice exciting, and react better to it, a new study says.

The findings show that the voice pitch and patterns of humans may help dogs learn words, as is believed to be the case with human babies.

To find out how dogs reacted to human speech, Nicolas Mathevon, a bioacoustician at the University of Lyon in Saint Étienne, France, recorded the voices of 30 women.

The women were asked to read the scripted phrases as they would to dogs, and as they would to humans. For the dog-directed readings, researchers provided them with photos of dogs to help them get in the mood.

Each woman read the following words: “Hi! Hello cutie! Who’s a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a good boy!”

The women read the words as they would to a puppy, as they would to an older dog, and as they would to a human.

The recordings were then played to dogs — 10 puppies and 10 adult dogs at a New York City animal shelter.

Nine of the 10 puppies reacted strongly to the pupy-directed recordings, barking and running toward the loudspeaker and even going into a play stance.

The pups were less interested when the women were using the lower pitched, less playful voices they would use while talking to other humans.

The older dogs, possibly having heard their fill of baby talk, didn’t react at all — likely because they’d become more attuned to their master’s voice and less to those of strangers.

The study’s findings were presented this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Why we talk to babies this ultra-animated, affirmation-filled way — both our own and those we’re just meeting — is instinctual. Why we talk to dogs, especially puppies, like this, is a result of their big-eyed, baby-like appearance that brings out similar instincts in us.

SONY DSCIn either case, it’s all related to our instinct for nurturing, and our desire to communicate with a non-verbal, or not-yet-verbal, being.

In the study, the women’s exaggerated, high-pitched speech served far better to get the attention of the dogs, said Mathevon, who believes this way of talking may help dogs learn words.

I couldn’t find an explanation of why only women’s voices — 30 of them aged 18 to 55 — were used in the study, but I’d guess it’s because women are generally better at, and less embarrassed, at using baby talk in public.

Most of my dogs have favored women. Ace always preferred females, and my dog new dog, Jinjja, is much more comfortable around them too. If he hears a female voice in the distance he pulls toward it, if he hears a male one, he stops or retreats.

A lot of it I think is simply a matter of pitch. A higher pitch is less threatening.

Likely, with Jinjja, it also has to do with how he was raised. Probably, men ran the Korean dog farm he was rescued from, and during and after that rescue it was probably mostly women who were kind to him.

The same is probably true of many a shelter or rescue dog. Given women make up the bulk of the staff and volunteers at animal rescue and shelter operations, those dogs often tend to associate a female voice with food, warmth and safety.

Possibly, dogs have figured out females are the kinder and more nurturing gender (though that might be a little sexist to say). Or it could be women’s voices, in general, sound more like squeaky toys (though that might be a little sexist to say).

But you’re not going to hold that against me. Nooooooo. You’re too nice to do that, aren’t you? Aren’t you? You’re such a good reader. Yes, you are.

(Photos by John Woestendiek / ohmidog!)

Another fun thing to do with your dog that won’t require your actual presence

playdate

Here’s another special report from your favorite worry wart.

No sooner do I bemoan one high-tech invention for dog owners than another comes rolling along, equally worth fretting about.

This one is a 3-inch remotely controlled orange ball, with a high-def camera inside, that you can watch and listen to on your cell phone.

Its makers boast it will “usher in the future of human-pet interaction.”

Let’s hope not.

It’s called PlayDate, now in the Indygogoing stage, and like many other contraptions hitting the market, it’s designed to make all the time your dog spends alone more bearable for him, and more entertaining and guilt-free for you.

The problem I have with that, as I’ve stated before, is how it lets dog owners shrug off the responsibility of dog ownership and diminishes the bond between dog and owner.

What I fret about is that the “future of human-pet interactions” could be long-distance, computer-assisted, virtual and heartless — exactly opposite of what dogs need, and exactly opposite of the reasons for having a dog in the first place.

A Manhattan inventor has come up with what the New York Post called “the next big thing for man’s best friend.”

Company co-founder Kevin Li says he got the idea for PlayDate after adopting his Rhodesian ridgeback-Lab mix, Hulk, three years ago.

“Looking at his sad face every time I left for work, I realized he … needed more time with his best friend.”

So Li (and we hope he worked from home at least a little bit) invented a ball for Hulk to play with — one he could control remotely, issue commands through, observe his dog through, and make squeak.

An adjunct computer-science professor at Columbia, Li described the $249 gadget as “Fitbit meets iPhone localization.”

He has already raised more than $200,000 on Indiegogo and has sold out of pre-orders.

With the rechargable ball, a pet owner can watch and listen to their pet, take photos, and record video, all from their iOS or Android device.

A stabilized camera inside provides real-time HD images. And a clear, replaceable outer shell protects the inner workings while allowing the camera — slobber aside — to see out clearly.

There are just three simple steps, its makers say: Download the free app, connect to wi-fi and “usher in the future of human-pet interaction.”

Sorry, but talk like that scares me, as do a few other things.

The shell of the ball is made of a strong, chew-resistant polycarbonate, designed to withstand rambunctious play, according to its makers.

I hope that has been well tested, because I’d prefer not to think about what swallowing a little camera and a lithium polymer battery might do to a dog (or cat).

In the world of pet products, many a toy marketed as indestructible has proved otherwise.

Even PlayDate’s makers are saying that part might take some fine tuning:

“As we put PlayDate’s smart ball in front of more dogs and cats, we may discover the need to make aspects of its design more robust; any pet owner will tell you there’s no such thing as an indestructible toy. We have purposefully designed features like the replaceable outer shell with this in mind. Additional design changes may be required as we perform more testing.”

And what, I wonder, will be the effect of communicating with — and issuing orders to — your dog via an orange ball? Seeing an orange ball wandering around the house on its own, and hearing a disembodied voice come from it would, at the very least, be confusing, I’d think.

I’m all for keeping a dog active, engaged and feeling loved when the owner is away. But it’s a mistake to assume that technology can make up for failing to give your dog adequate attention.

And — needless to say — one shouldn’t get a dog in the first place if one is unwilling or unable to give him or her their time.

Face-time, I mean, with no cameras, or wi-fi, or remote controls involved.

Before we usher human-pet interaction “into the future,” it might be wise to question whether we really need to take that trip.

Didn’t we pretty much have it down just fine already — most of us, anyway?

(Photo: from PlayDate’s website)

Why bark when you can honk?

I have a theory that there are many things dogs would like us to know, and that dogs even give us some hints in hopes of making us see the light, and that we humans, being humans, often just don’t get it.

These videos are a perfect example of what could be one of them:

Dogs left alone in cars — with the windows cracked if they’re lucky — sounding the car horn.

In the one above, posted on YouTube five months ago, an Airedale leans on the car horn for a good long time, while another Airedale waits more patiently in the back seat.

The dog’s owner returned to the car and said the two “love going for rides, but apparently they don’t like waiting,” according to the Pennsylvania woman who shot the video.

Here’s another one, from a few years back. This boxer reportedly sounded the horn for 15 minutes while her owner was in an art gallery in Scotland:

Here’s one more, where a barking dog, encouraged by a stranger to honk the horn, complied.

You can find many others on YouTube. Judging from them, the first response of humans — after grabbing some video footage, of course — is to laugh and label it “hilarious.”

Sure it’s funny. But might it be something more? Along the lines of a wake-up call? Along the lines of, “Hey, stupid, don’t leave us closed up in cars for extended periods of time. How much barking and honking will it take for that to sink into your thick human skull?”

If you’re old enough to remember Lassie, the TV show, you’ll recall how hard the collie — aware of some unfolding disaster — had to work to alert humans to the urgency of the situation. She’d bark, go in circles, run a little ahead and look back, clearly saying “hurry, follow me!”

The humans would watch, but precious time was lost, it always seemed, as they absorbed the signal she was sending.

“Wait, look at Lassie,” they’d say. (Long pause.) “I think … could it be …. is she is trying to tell us something?”

And this even though they’d all been through this same drill with her many times before.

We humans can be a little slow to catch on — even when the signs are staring in our faces … or blaring in our ears.

You’re the cutest little human I ever did see

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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.

horowitzThere 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.”

(Top photo and video by John Woestendiek / ohmidog!; photo of Horowitz by Vegar Abelsnes)