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Tag: talking dogs

When dogs ruled the Hollywood shorts

Portraying dogs as humans — a topic we’ve brought up a few times, usually with a sneer — is as ensconced in Hollywood tradition as it has now become on Facebook.

Dogs talking in movies, in fact, is as nearly old as talkies themselves. In the Early Sound Era, trained dogs (aka as cheap labor) were commonly called on to appear in movies, particular movie shorts that were shown before the feature presentation in movie houses.

Of those, one series in the pack stood out: the “All-Barkie” Dogville Comedies, including “Hot Dog” (above).

From 1929 to 1931, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced a series of nine short comedy films, sometimes known as the “barkies.”

The actors in these films, directed by Zion Myers and conceived and co-directed by Jules White (who both later gained fame for The Three Stooges comedies), were trained dogs, usually dressed in human attire, whose voices were dubbed by human actors.

Their aim, most often, was laughs. They commonly mocked the often naughty and haughty behavior of the noble class — and spoofed the era’s movies, as well.

But as you’ll see here today, some of them had a pretty dark side.

The series is somewhat controversial today — and was even then — due to suspected methods alleged to have been used to get the dogs to pose and to appear to talk, and they stopped being made after criticism over a scene in the final one, portraying canine cannibalism.

Of course “talking dogs” were nothing new by the 1930s. Talking movies were, though, and dogs pretty much worked for free.

The films were shot with silent film and dubbed over with human speech, often using the voices of White and Myers, as well as other actors.

The Dogville shorts started with 1929’s “College Hounds”, a parody of Buster Keaton’s “College” that features a huge doggie football game. The next film was “Hot Dog,” about a murder in a seedy cabaret after a jealous husband finds out his wife has been cheating on him.

After that came “Who Killed Rover?” and a Broadway parody called “The Dogway Melody.”

Those were followed by “The Big Dog House,” “All’s Canine on the Western Front,” and “Love Tails of Morocco.”

A nationwide theatre owners poll in 1930 rated the Dogvilles as the best short subjects over more legendary comedy and musical series, according to article published last year by Atlas Obscura

Many of the dogs were supplied by renowned Hollywood animal trainer Rennie Renfro, who was present for the making of the films.

To make the canine performers appear as if they were speaking, a director or Renfro himself would stand in front of a dog and wave various lures to focus the canine’s attention. The human would then open his hand repeatedly to entice the dog to open its mouth. Other times, they gave the dogs toffee to make them chomp.

A January 1931 article in Popular Science Monthly says the directors preferred using stray and mixed-breed dogs “because they are not high strung and can get along better in groups than the animal ‘prima donnas’ of breeding.”

Based on trade papers of the time, the Dogville Comedies were well-received and director White would call the series the favorite project of his career.

But not everyone was tickled and charmed by the “Barkies.”

There are some accounts that piano wire was used to help the dogs remain upright — as if they were part dog, part marionette.

The Performing and Captive Animals’ Defense League wrote to the British Board of Film Censors to protest the release of the movies and several films in the series were banned by British censors.

The creators stopped making the Dogville Comedies in 1931 after the controversial “Trader Hound,” a spoof of the movie, “Trader Horn.” The short was banned by U.K. censors for its hints at cannibalism — albeit dogs eating dogs, as opposed to humans eating humans

In retrospect, some see the short films — just as some see The Three Stooges — as having a mean edge. On one hand, they seem aimed at children; on the other, the plots were often mature, featuring adultery and murder.

Throw in the animal welfare concerns, and the fact that humanizing dogs doesn’t do anyone any good, and they can be looked at — by me anyway — as a less than glorious chapter of Hollywood history.

The complete series of Dogville Comedies has been released on DVD by Warner Bros. as part of its Warner Archive Collection.

Don, the talking dog who started it all

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In this era of talking dogs — from the animated creatures in Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” to those so easily found “conversing” on the Internet — it might behoove us to remember the first “real” one, the star of a vaudeville act known as Don the Talking Dog.

And since not too many of us were around in 1912 to recall that, we’re fortunate that Smithsonian Magazine writer Greg Daugherty revisited that era and that dog for the magazine recently.

Don the Talking Dog, a setter or pointer from Germany, made his debut in the U.S. in 1912 — during the golden age of vaudeville, the less salty cousin of burlesque, which was traditionally peppered with acts featuring animals doing human things.

There, for a few quarters, you could see rats riding cats around racetracks, dancing elephants, boxing kangaroos, juggling sea lions and monkeys displaying an array of talents.

smithsonianillustrationDon the Talking Dog — proclaimed “the canine phenomenon of the century” — took things a step further. He, or so his name implied, talked.

Only in German, of course. But with a heavy population of German immigrants at the time in New York City, he became a major hit.

He had already garnered attention in Europe by then, with a vocabulary that reached eight words.

His first word was haben (“have” in English), followed by his own name, the word kuchen (cake or biscuit), ja and nein, ruhe (rest) and hunger (which is the same in both languages).

Generally, he didn’t speak in sentences, just one word at a time, and only when prompted by his trainer.

Don arrived in the U.S. in 1912 at the invitation of the vaudeville impresario William Hammerstein.

“Don will sail on the Kronprinz Wilhelm next Wednesday,” the New York Times noted. “A special cabin has been engaged in order to insure his safety.”

When Don’s ship docked, he was greeted by reporters, though they were disappointed not to get any good quotes.

Don stayed in the U.S for the next two years, making appearances in New York and around the country, once performing on the same bill as escape artist Harry Houdini. He then toured the country, performing in Boston, San Francisco, and other cities.

His act consisted of answering a series of questions served up by his regular straight man and interpreter, a vaudeville veteran known as Loney Haskell. Haskell became so attached to Don, according to news reports at that, “that in one-night stands he slept in the dog’s kennel.”

The journal Science, party poopers even back then, didn’t quite buy his act: “The speech of Don is … to be regarded properly as the production of sounds which produce illusions in the hearer.”

screen_shot_2018-04-20_at_45805_pmDespite his dubious skills and limited vocabulary, Don became a pioneering celebrity endorser, for Milk-Bone dog biscuits.

After two years in the U.S., Don retired and returned to his homeland. Haskell once calculated that their stage performances paid Don $92 per word, the equivalent of about $2,300 a word today. He died at home, near Dresden, Germany, in late 1915.

Smithsonian reported, “His last words, if any, seem to have gone unrecorded.”

Other “talking” dogs would follow, including Rolf, a German-born terrier who supposedly communicated by a form of Morse code, and was able to add and subtract, and Queen, who was described as “positively the only dog in the world that speaks the English language.”

Fast forward 100 years and we still have folks making those claims — dog owners, scientists, and entrepreneurs, each group with probably a few hucksters among them, who claim to be on the verge of a device that translates dog to human.

Take them as you would the dogs speaking in this compilation (none of whom can say compilation, by the way) — with a grain of salt.

(Illustrations: Smithsonian Magazine)

Talk the dog: Humanizing our pets

There are two main reasons I’m against humanizing our pets.

One, it’s messing with nature — dogs (ideal beasts, in my view) should stay dogs.

Two, portraying them as humans, giving them human attributes, or using them as our puppets, implies our species is superior, and worth imitating. Oftentimes, from what I’ve seen of it, it’s not. We’re are way too far from perfect to appoint ourselves role models for the animal kingdom.

I get slightly peeved when I see technology being used to make dogs more human — especially when, because we deem it cute and entertaining, we put our words in their mouths.

So, immensely popular as it is, I’m less than smitten with My Talking Pet, an app that allows us to take a photo of our cat or dog, record an audio message, and get a video of our pet — animated so that mouth, nose and eyebrows move as the pet appears to talk.

From the samples I’ve seen, the words we put in the mouths of dogs are only further proof that we’re not the intellectually superior species we think we are.

“People are obsessed with it,” said Iain Baird, who developed the app with his former school buddy, Peter Worth. “I think it’s really struck a chord with how close people are with their pets.”

The concept, he told Fortune.com, came while he and some friends were in a London pub talking about a YouTube video featuring a “talking dog” that had gone viral. They decided to come up with an app that would make it easy for any pet owner make their dog “talk,” and it hit the iTunes market in early 2013.

It wasn’t until after the app was featured on the “Ellen” show that it really took off.

Last October, Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs, stars of the CBS sitcom “2 Broke Girls,” praised the app while on the show. In the weeks that followed it became the most downloaded paid app in the Apple iTunes store.

Worth and Baird say their company, WOBA Media,  began thinking even bigger after that — including offering a “devil mode,” which adds glowing red eyes to the pet, and “angel mode,” in which the pet appears under a halo.

Taken alone, “My Talking Pet” is  just a little harmless fun — as is dressing the dog up for Halloween, treating the dog like a spoiled grandchild, or calling them “fur babies”.

The dangers come when our seeing them as humans sabotages our attempts at training, when we start assigning dogs human emotions they don’t have, and holding them to human expectations.

We should be close to our pets. We should see them as family members — only canine ones. To manipulate them, to turn them into something else (humans, or angels, or devils), to put words into their mouths, all takes away from appreciating them for what they are.

Just something to keep in mind as technology marches on — often making bigger inroads than we originally anticipated.

How long will it be, for example, before cutting edge, 21st Century technology, like that used in “My Talking Pet”  is turned around on us, and the app takes on a mind of its own, and our pets are giving us their unsolicited opinions on the best brand of dog food, cereal or car to buy?

That could never happen, could it?

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)

What part of “no” don’t you understand?

You know how frustrated you get when you have to tell your dog something over and over again?

Come here. Come HERE. Listen to me. Get over here right now. Don’t make me say it again. COME HERE!

In this video, the shoe is sort of on the other paw.

John Ventresco, of New Hampshire, is trying to persuade his 11-month-old husky, Blaze, to get into her crate.

Not only does Blaze physically (but peacefully) resist, refusing to budge, but she says what sounds like “no” — 30 times by my count, at least 10 of those quite clearly:

“Noooooo!”

Posted on YouTube just two weeks ago, the video is approaching 5 million views, meaning a lot of people are getting a chuckle, and learning how not to train a dog, and debating whether Ventresco — as gentle and good-humored as his urging is — is going to get bitten one of these days, and, if so, will he have deserved it.

Eventually one of them will have the other properly trained, I’m just not sure if it will be Ventresco or Blaze. Right now, it appears to be a draw.

The bigger question it raises, to me, anyway, is whether the day will come when dogs really do talk. I predict it will — that they will someday talk, on their own, without the aid of implants, headsets, devices that monitor their brain waves and apps that translate what they’re thinking into words.

Several projects are underway that do just that — because we humans want to know what’s going on in their heads, and we want to know now, and somebody somewhere thinks it might make some money.

We’ll take advantage of technology to bring that about and get it on the market as soon as possible, rather than wait a few hundred or thousand more years when, I’d venture, dogs will have evolved to the point that they’re talking on their own anyway.

It’s only natural for that to happen, with them living so closely to us, observing us around the clock,  and watching too much TV. They will continue to pick up our skills — learning to operate a remote control, warming up some chicken nuggets, uttering words, then entire phrases.

Mark my words. By the year 2525 (and that’s just a wild guess), dogs will be saying “yes” and “no,” and more:

Feed me.

I want to go outside for a while.

But wait, there’s more. Details at 11. Ohmigod, they killed Kenny. Live from New York, it’s Saturday night.

Put me in that damn crate again and, I swear,  I’m going to call my attorney.

They may never have as sophisticated a vocabulary as us, may never be as erudite, snotty, self-promoting and adept at making barbed comments as us. But the day will come that they use words.

The question is not whether dogs will someday learn to talk. It’s whether, when they do, we’ll listen.

We already stink at that — in terms of listening to our fellow humans, and in terms of hearing what our dogs are silently saying. We’re so dependent on words we don’t hone our wordless communication skills, even though that mode is often more honest and meaningful.

My fear is that, through continued domicile-sharing with humans, dogs are going to learn to talk, but also — like Blaze, like Ventresco — not to listen.

It all brings to mind some lyrics from a song that has nothing to do with dogs — Don McLean’s “Vincent.” When you think about it, the misunderstood artist and modern day dog have much in common. We wonder what they’re trying to say, fail to see their brilliance, and don’t appreciate them fully until they’re gone.

Instead, often, we taunt, ridicule and shame them.

How much shorter might Van Gogh’s career have been, how many appendages might he have lopped off,  were he around in the Internet age, reading nasty comments from people about his paintings?

How much quicker might the civil rights movement have progressed if people had shut up and listened to Martin Luther King, Jr., the first time?

Are we getting any better at listening, or quicker to turn a deaf ear?

As the song “Vincent” says:

They would not listen, they’re not listening still.
Perhaps they never will…

Let’s give it a listen.

Anti-dogfighting PSA gives voice to dogs

 

I’m all for giving dogs a voice, I just get a little creeped out when it’s a human one.

Talking dog movies, for example, strike me as another example of making them (dogs) more like us (humans), when they are perfect just as they are — and when they’re not, it’s usually because of something we humans imposed on them.

Nevertheless, this public service announcement from KnockOutDogFighting.org is so well done, and rings so true, and is for such a good cause, it’s worth a look.

The Knock Out Dog Fighting program is an award-winning anti-dogfighting campaign that makes use of professional athletes — professional boxers and fighters who partner with schools, juvenile detention facilities, community centers, community-based organizations, dog trainers, law enforcement agencies and gang prevention task forces with the goal of stopping cruelty and abuse.

The program identifies the underlying reasons kids and young adults are fighting dogs and provides resources and youth intervention programs to address those issues, working to help at-risk youth make better choices and develop empathy for animals.

“Beverly Hills Chihuahua” … It’s not a dog

      I don’t usually go in for movies with talking dogs (or horses, or cats), but Beverly Hills Chihuahua seems to be racking up some decent reviews as it opens across the country. 
     Carrie Rickey, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, gave it three bones (well stars, actually): 
     “Sublimely silly and oddly poignant, Beverly Hills Chihuahua – that’s right, the one with the talking canines – is Lady and the Tramp for lap dogs, Roots for pooches, Legally Blonde told from Bruiser’s point of view.

“Graced with unusually expressive and seamless voice work by Drew Barrymore and George Lopez, the best of its kind since Babe, BHC is about Chloe (Barrymore), a citified, prettified, bootie-wearing, diamond-swathed, 90210 Chihuahua dognapped on a jaunt to Mexico.”

“A filthy-rich fantasy for these cash-strapped times,” penned Peter Debruge of Variety. While the movie “peddles tacky stereotypes in thick Hispanic accents,” Debruge says, Barrymore’s voice is “endearing” and “she plays the role with helpful nuance: She is polite in her bigotry, naive in her self-entitlement and gracious toward those small kindnesses other characters show her.”

Michael Rechtshaffen, of The Hollywood Reporter was slightly more lukewarm, saying BHC lacks the pedigree of such Disney favorites as Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. Even though the writing could have been “punched up” a bit, he said, the movie’s “spirited voice cast delivers the whole enchilada.”