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Tag: language

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.

Corn dog, horn dog, porn dog

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We all know what a corn dog is, and most of us know what a horn dog is, but what about the newest dog-derived term that is popping up in the news media:

Porn dog?

We humans tend to stick “dog” at the end of other words with reckless abandon — hang dog, hot dog, top dog, underdog, salty dog, shaggy dog, lucky dog, sly dog.

We’re prone to sticking “dog” at the beginning of phrases also — dog days, dog-eared, dog tired, dog eat dog, dog and pony show — and it doesn’t seem to matter whether there is any rhyme or reason or logic to it.

Sometimes the phrases are based on supposed traits pertaining to dogs, sometimes not — as in raining cats and dogs.

Today’s etymological discussion, aimed at clearing up such misnomers, will be limited to three dog terms, starting with the corn dog, a simple little invention with a long-running dispute over its origin.

Carl and Neil Fletcher claim they introduced the world to “Corny Dogs” at the Texas State Fair sometime between 1938 and 1942. Pronto Pup, which sells corn dogs at the Minnesota State Fair, says it invented the cornmeal covered, deep fried treat in 1941. Cozy Dog Drive-in, in Springfield, Illinois, claims to have been the first to serve corn dogs on sticks in 1946 — the same year Dave Barham opened the first location of Hot Dog on a Stick.

Possibly, they are all wrong. Author Linda Campbell, in “300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles,” points out that a “Krusty Korn Dog” baker machine appeared in the 1929 Albert Pick-L. Barth wholesale catalog of hotel and restaurant supplies.

And two years earlier, in 1927, a patent was filed for a device for making battered and deep fried foods, wieners included, impaled on a stick.

(Similarly, the origin of the term “hot dog” is hotly debated, with numerous Americans saying they invented the term for what originated as a German (or Austrian) sausage. The exact year the term “hot dog” began being used as a synonym for “show-off” is not known, but my guess is surfers were behind it.)

horn-dogLess disputed — and far more insulting to dogs, we would submit — is the phrase “horn dog.”

Merriam-Webster defines it as a slang term for “a lustful or sexually aggressive man.” It says the term’s first known use was around 1984.

Dictionary.com says that while the word “horny” dates back to the 1300’s, using it to describe sexual arousal didn’t begin until the latter half of the 1800s. Initially, it was used only to describe male excitement — a man was said to “have the horn” — but eventually it was applied to women as well.

Similarly, the term “horn dog” is most often applied to men, though some females have commented online that, hey, they can be horn dogs, too.

Why did we humans feel the need to tack “dog” onto horn? Like many other phrases using the word dog — and I’m being serious for a moment here — it is based on an outdated and negative view of dogs as beasts who live only to sleep, eat and mate.

All of those are worthy pursuits, but admitting they are what we humans live for (when in reality, we also like to make and spend money) is to portray us as animals, and we like to think we are more than that. So calling someone a horn dog, as opposed to a horn human, somehow makes life easier.

What the phrase, and many dog phrases, overlook is that in reality, more often that not, someone “behaving like a dog” is actually an improvement.

Which brings us to porn dogs.

This one is clearly a misnomer. It’s not someone who watches XXX-rated movies that were filmed in seedy motels (fleabags, perhaps?). Although that (given the pre-existence of the phrase horn dog) would make sense.

Instead, it’s being used to describe dogs who are trained to sniff out a certain adhesive used in electronic storage devices, such as thumb drives, hard drives, and SD cards.

You may recall that such a dog discovered the key evidence that led to a guilty plea in the child pornography case against Jared Fogle, the former Subway spokesperson.

That’s when the term “porn dog” first popped up, and now it’s being perpetuated by others. It doesn’t describe what the dogs do at all, but the term has more zing to it, and is easier to say than “electronic storage device adhesive-sniffing dog.”

“It’s extremely catching and fitting, because that’s what it’s there to do, sniff out child pornographers,” said Jon Dumas, whose organization, Montgomery County Crimestoppers, helped buy such a dog for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department in Texas.

Actually, it’s not fitting at all because the dogs are sniffing out devices, not pornography, and because child pornography doesn’t smell any different from adult pornography, and because any number of things — incriminating and not incriminating — can be stored on a thumb drive.

The specially-trained dog, named Brody, is a chocolate Labrador, KHOU reported.

The new “porn dog” is expected to arrive next month, at which time I’m sure everyone will continue to refer to him as the “porn dog” — to the detriment of dogs, to the detriment of Brody and in defiance of truth.

Humans these days play a little too fast and loose with labels, both in terms of applying them and accepting them. If it’s catchy enough, it doesn’t have to be factual, we seem to think.

Take this year’s hot Christmas gift — the “hoverboard.”

On top of the fact that it is maiming people left and right, it doesn’t hover at all. It has wheels, and it stays on the ground — at least until you fly off of it and break a bone.

Yet everyone — or at least everyone who doesn’t want a drone — wants a hoverboard.

Doggone stupid, is it not?

Tell-tail signs: How to read your dog’s wag

wag

I’ve got to admit I’ve never paid much attention to which way Ace’s tail is wagging — mostly to the right, or mostly to the left.

More often, it just seems to go back and forth, one side to the other, which is kind of the definition of wag.

But researchers in Italy, who first reported that the prominent direction of the wag signifies whether a dog is experiencing positive or negative feelings, now say other dogs are aware of this subtle distinction, and apparently have been for some time, indicating they — dogs — are much more on top of things than researchers.

Researchers at the University of Trento, in a new study, had dogs watch videos of other dogs wagging their tails. They found, according to a study reported in the journal Current Biology, that dogs watching another dog whose tail is wagging left  showed signs of anxiety, including a higher heart rate. When watching a tail wag right, they remained calm.

When watching “Two Broke Girls” the dogs asked if they might please leave the room. (Not really.)

Returning to seriousness, the Italian researchers first reported in 2007 that dogs convey a wide array of emotions through the tail wag — not just happiness. A wag to the left indicates negative emotions; a wag to the right indicates positive ones. The directions are as seen when standing behind a dog.

In the earlier study, 30 dogs were placed, one at a time, in a large box surrounded with black plastic to prevent any visual stimulus (except maybe to dogs who find black plastic stimulating). The dogs were then shown a stimulus for 60 seconds  — a dominant Belgian Malinois, a cat in a cage, their owners, and a strange human, by which we only mean one they hadn’t met.

A system for measuring the tail movements of each dog was established — far too complex to go into here. Suffice to say, as the scientists put it:

wagchart“Tail wagging scores associated with the different stimuli were analyzed from video-recordings. Positions of the tail were scored every 10 seconds by superimposition on the computer screen of a cursor on the long axis of the body: the maximum extents of the particular tail wag occurring at each 10 second interval was recorded. Using single frames from video recording two angles were identified with respect to the maximum excursion of the tail to the right and to the left side of the dog’s body. Tail wagging angles were obtained with reference to the axes formed by the midline of the dog’s pelvis — the segment extending lengthwise through the dog’s hips, drawn from the largest points as seen from above and the axes perpendicular to it.”

When faced with their owner, dogs exhibited a “striking right-sided bias in the amplitudes of tail wagging.”  Less robust right-sided wags were observed also when the dogs were shown unfamiliar humans. When faced with a cat, dogs showed very reduced tail wagging, but still a slight bias favoring the right side. Seeing a dominant unfamiliar dog led the dogs in the study to wag more to the left.

The first study reported: “How far asymmetric tail-wagging responses are associated with postural asymmetry in preparation to the stimuli is difficult to say.” (You can say that again)  “It is likely that control of the flexure of the vertebral column is the same for the tail as well as the rest of the column, but the method we used for scoring tail-wagging responses and the panels flanking the body of the animal in the test-cage minimized any effect of asymmetric posture associated with spine bending.”

I’ve got to wonder which way the dogs’ tails wagged — or if they tucked them between their legs — when they were listening to the scientists talk.

The researchers stop short of saying wagging tails are a mode of communication between dogs.

“This is something that could be explained in quite a mechanistic way,” said Giorgio Vallortigara, a neuroscientist and an author of both studies. “It’s simply a byproduct of the asymmetry of the brain.” Dogs, he explains, have asymmetrically organized brains, like humans (or at least most of them): “The emotions are associated presumably with activation of either the right or left side of brain,” he said. “Left-brain activation produces a wag to the right, and vice versa.”

But it would seem to me that if one dog is moving his tail, and another is drawing conclusions from that motion, as the scientists say is the case, that’s communication — perhaps even a clearer form thereof than that to which the scientists are prone.

(Photo: Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Bari)

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Confusing signage is everywhere, but one notices it more when they are in a new place, and when they’re relying on those signs for guidance.

As in, is it OK to walk my dog here?

We found this one — at a park in Saugerties, New York — particularly baffling.

It could, and probably does, mean swimming, dogs and littering are all prohitited. Then again, it could mean there is no swimming, and dogs are allowed.

Then again it could mean swimming dogs are not allowed. Or, one final interpretation, it could mean swimming dogs are allowed, but they shouldn’t litter while they are doing so.

We went with the first interpretation, and moved on.

Highway Haiku: “On Proper English Yousage”

 

“On Proper English Yousage”

The English language

Takes abuses — south and north

From ya’lls to youses

Retired professor and wife killed by dogs

A former University of Georgia professor and his wife found dead along the highway Saturday morning were apparently killed by a pack of dogs, according to the state medical examiner.

Lothar Karl Schweder, 77, who had taught German at the university, and his wife, Sherry Schweder, 65, who worked at the university’s main library, were found on a road where they often walked their own dogs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

The couple were found by visiting Jehovah’s Witness members.

After an autopsy Monday morning, Oglethorpe County Coroner James Mathews told the University of Georgia student newspaper, The Red & Black, that a dog attack was to blame.

“It was the results of a brutal dog attack,” Mathews said. “Without being graphic there were bites from head to toe… There are a lot of weird circumstances with this one. I’ve been coroner for 28 years, and this is one of the weirdest cases I’ve investigated.”

The state Bureau of Investigation responded to a call about the bodies around 10 a.m. Saturday morning.

Oglethorpe County animal control officials were out Monday looking for the dogs in the area, along Highway 77, near Highway 78.

Bark 3: “Bowlingual” gadget translates barks

bowlingualSo, if there’s no deep meaning behind barks (not that we buy that study), how do you explain this?

Japanese toymaker Takara Tomy is coming out with a new “Bowlingual” gadget that can translate dog barks into the human language, AFP reports.

The new model analyzes six emotions, including joy, sadness and frustration, and speaks phrases such as “Play with me!” — an improvement on the original which just showed them on a screen.

The original version of the toy, which has a handset and a microphone attached to a dog collar, won the Ig Nobel Prize in 2002. The awards, a parody of the Nobel Prizes, celebrate achievements that make people laugh and think.

The new Bowlingual Voice, priced at about $212, will be launched in Japan next month, Yamada said.

Initially, it will be only available in Japanese. The original non-speaking version is also available in English and Korean.