Can Dogs Talk? The short answer: No. But They Study Your Behavior All the Time.

June 24, 2009

Scientific American ran a piece recently, Fact or Fiction: Dogs Can Talk. The answer that’s obvious to anyone with even a little knowledge of canine anatomy is certainly not, they don’t have the lip and tongue control to form the sounds necessary for human speech.

This makes them ‘dumb’ animals, a phrase I frequently hear misused. People tell me about complex behaviors they observe in their dogs and comment at the end of their story, ‘And they say that dogs are just dumb animals!’ This confuses the meaning of the word ‘dumb’ in the sense that dogs are speechless, not stupid. Verbal communication skills are so ingrained in our expectation of intelligence that it’s a very common mistake.

Think about all those ads you’ve heard over the years for improving your vocabulary. The implication is that your intelligence is being judged every time you speak, which is probably true. The appeal of these ads is to your intellectual insecurity as well as the quick-fix mentality of so many Americans. You can sound just like a graduate of an Ivy League school without having to complete the crushing amount of course work or pay the enormous tuition costs.

However, an extensive vocabulary does not always equal intelligence. We’ve all known people who are extremely glib and well-spoken but not especially intelligent or insightful, they just sound like they are. This is common among those for whom public speaking is a key part of their job, like politicians, teachers, preachers and salesmen.

So we have to work against our prejudice that spoken words are the lone indicator of intelligence. To me it’s clear that dogs are intelligent, though mute. Dogs are trainable, cats are not. I invite any cat lovers to inundate the comments section with tales of cats rescuing people by alerting them to danger, or the existence of drug and/or bomb sniffing cats, or guide cats for the blind, etc. I think you can make a strong case that cats are not even truly domesticated animals, certainly not in the way that dogs are.

One important fact that most dog owners seem to overlook is that they are constantly being studied by their companion animals. Dogs are alert to the inflections in our voices and every movement we make.

Most of us don’t realize how much information we are sending to our dogs by our posture, our tone of voice, all of our physical actions. This leads to behavior that some would like to construe as “psychic”* like a dog “knowing” when its owner is about to arrive at home. For example, I have a 7 year old Labrador Retriever who seems to “know” when I’m leaving the house whether or not I’m taking him with me.

When he’s coming with me, he follows me to the door and waits for his leash. When I’m not taking him, he goes and lays down in his crate. From my perspective, I’m not doing anything differently in either case until I am near the door and grab the leash. But long before I get there, he’s already made his determination about whether he’s coming or not.

I’ve puzzled over this for a very long time. While I love my dog and feel a deep connection with him, I can’t accept the theories about non-material communication. I’m convinced that I am doing something subtly different that cues my dog to my intention, non-verbally.

I’ll give you another example that supports this contention.  When my older dog and our new rescued dog are curled up in the floor in my office, every time I change my position in my chair, Luna, the younger dog, leaps to her feet in expectation that I’m getting up and that this action concerns her. Are we going outside? Are we getting a treat? Will you be paying attention to me, instead of that stupid glowing screen on your desk? Huxley, on the other hand, has been around longer and knows better. He won’t move until he actually sees me get up from my chair.

Luna at 3 is certainly more reactive, in general, than Huxley at 7. It will interesting to see if, over time, she begins to understand that every move I make at my desk is not predictive of a walk, a treat or a romp outside.

I’ve had the privilege of working with several dogs (my own and fosters) with the great trainer Ken Picciuto, who says that training is always going on between you and your dog. The question is who is training who? If your dog begs at the table and you reward her with a scrap off your plate, she’s learned that begging works and this reinforces the behavior. She is training you.

So asking whether or not dogs can talk seems to me to be the wrong question. Intelligence and communication are clearly going on with our dogs, despite the fact that only we can talk.

To turn this around, every dog owner believes that they can tell you a great deal about what their dog is thinking or feeling, all based on non-verbal cues. Huxley, for example, prefers sitting in front of the fireplace watching a fire than watching anything on Showtime, Bravo or HBO, hi-def or not. For my money, that’s a good argument for his intelligence right there.

*Full Disclosure: I’m a long time skeptic about all paranormal subjects (including religious belief) and complimentary and alternative medicine. If you’re going to worship a god, how do you choose among the thousands that have been worshiped throughout history?  Why is the Judeo-Christian God more likely to exist than Thor or Zeus? For the best available discussion of this, please see Richard Dawkins’ excellent book The God Delusion.

The evidence does not support UFOs, Ghosts, Accupuncture, Astrology, etc. despite all the programming on the History Channel. The plural of anecdotes is not data. There are no haunted houses, just haunted people as James Randi says.  And, of course, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, in the late Carl Sagan’s words.

So I hereby issue a challenge to all ghosts, spooks, space aliens and interdimensional beings of all stripes: come on down! I don’t have to list my address here, surely you’ll all know how to find me. I promise I will faithfully report to my audience your arrival and whatever wisdom or warnings you bring with you. I do however, object to any anal probing you might wish to perform. I already have a gastroenterologist who does that for me every 3 to five years.


Got something to say?

You must be logged in to post a comment.