His Master’s Voice

by Translation Guy on November 15, 2010

The choice was simple. Watch TV or blog. PBS Nova did a special on dogs. Conclusion: Dogs are smart. I suppose that doesn’t come as much of a surprise to you companion animal companions, whose every pet is above average, but dogs understand human communication in a way that makes supposedly smarter animals like chimpanzees not-so-happy campers.

Dogs possess a 2-year-old child’s capacity to understand human pointing gestures, with dogs requiring next to zero learning time to figure out the visual communication, according to two recent studies.

Some dogs are pointers, but all dogs get the point of human gesture. “Due to domestication, dogs appear to be predisposed to read other human visual signals, including head-turning and gazing.”

“Pet owners often use baby talk, scientifically known as ‘motherese,’ with both children and dogs, allowing canines and kids to receive similar social stimulation.”

Dogs may not share the same ape ancestors that humans and chimpanzees do, but unlike chimps, they speak the same social language as humans.

Interesting video footage on the Nova broadcast of dogs following a pointed finger even as pups (very cute), while chimpanzees completely ignore the gesture.

So the pack mentality shared by dogs, wolves and humans is communication about cooperation. While your average human might helpfully point out a snack to a friend, it just isn’t done in chimp circles. So chimps don’t look for it, so they can’t see it, even when it’s right there staring them in the face. Even the smartest chimpanzee can’t decode a cooperative gesture like that; she doesn’t have the mental category to make it meaningful to her own experience. But dogs get it. Pointing out ducks and other treats is what pointers do, as just one example, so it figures that dogs would be alert to that behavior in humans. That, in fact, is a key difference between dogs and wolves.

These wild ancestors of our canine friends are just like the chimps. They don’t get the point of human gesture. Now wolves are cooperative pack animals in the same way dogs and humans are. Hey, for wolves, “meat” is just “team” misspelled backwards! But wolves haven’t been bred to team with hunters, or vice versa, so eye of the wolf can’t get the point of human gesture. Dogs have been selected for those communicative traits in the name of domestication.

That was fine back in the caveman days, back when dogs were dogs. But times have changed. Now when I see all these pampered poodles riding from playdate to beauty salon in their doggy taxies, I’ve got to ask myself, who is selecting what for who? I think we humans are getting domesticated just as rapidly as dogs. But at least dogs are getting better at reading humans.

Stanley Coren, dog behavorist, says that the average dog can understand about 165 words, including signs, signals and gestures. They can also count to about 5.

“I mean, we’re not going to make them an accountant or something,” Coren said in an interview with CNN Radio.

“We’ve been wiring into dogs the ability to communicate with us,” he said. “If you will, we’ve been manipulating their intelligence.” This is high concept here. Excuse me, I’ve got to call my agent. . .


  1. Wilber says:

    Some of these (ahem) points reveal that a couple of fuzzy doctrines I’ve believed for many years are wrong; don’t know who to blame. I thought, for example, that if you point a finger at an object the dog will just look at your finger, while a higher ape will take the cue and look at the object. Also, that while a higher ape recognizes itself as itself in a mirror, a dog doesn’t. Hey, learning is fun!

  2. Leo Lassiter says:

    What does this have to do with translation?

  3. Stinker says:

    Pretty interesting that my dog is smarter than my toddler.

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