Archive for January 17, 2008

Doolittle V. 2.0?

Csaba Molnár from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary and his research team have developed a computer program to analyze dog barks.  The computer input (i.e. barking samples) came from 14 Hungarian Mudi sheepdogs.  The dog’s vocalizations were recorded in six different situations: ‘stranger’, ‘fight’, ‘walk’, ‘alone’, ‘ball,’ and ‘play’; in an attempt to learn more about the nuances of auditory communication in dogs.

The software correctly classified new barks in less than half of the samples. The highest rates of correlation were obtained with the alert type barks for ‘fight’ and ‘stranger’, and the worst in correctly identifying ‘play’ barks.

Although I find this work interesting, I admit that I found it odd that the focus of the study was vocal communication.  In my experience, vocal or auditory communication is not the primary way that dogs communicate with each other – or with us.  I suspect that scent is the primary sense they use in communication with each other and vision (as in use of body language) is the primary sense they use to communicate with us.

Human beings are excessively verbal animals.  When we aren’t talking out loud we’re usually carrying on an internal verbal dialog with ourselves.  This excessive use of verbal language is a uniquely human trait.  So is this study just a bit of well-intentioned but misplaced anthropomorphism that accomplished little more than the creation of a more accurate version of the Bowlingual?

Can we talk?

According to Roger Abrantes, PhD, “Communication between man and dog requires the use of accurate signals the dog is able to understand. When choosing signals we may need to think as a dog to understand how the dog will decode them.  Yet, we can only have an approximate idea of the dog’s world of signals, its semiosphere.”

The dog’s semiosphere is the stimuli, signs, mind, communications and culture he exists in with the one he is communicating with – sometimes also referred to as ‘shared umwelt’. The semiosphere is a wonderfully complex realm that includes not only perception from the sense of scent, sight, sound, touch and kinaesthesis; but also all of our life’s experiences.

Taking a single piece of the semiotic equation and separating it from the whole to analyze it, seems to me to be a bit like trying to understand the Earth’s ecosystems solely through a study of the chemistry of water. 

phoneme is the smallest unit of human speech that can be differentiated.  To the dog, a bark likey provides a similar function – that of a minor part of his lexicon.  Without being considered in conjunction with the various body postures the dog makes as it barks, it makes no more sense in isolation than the isolated sound ‘hey’ would to us.

If I say “Hey” as I jump up and down, and wave my arms with an excited look on my face; it means an utterly different thing than it does if I say “Hey” as I cock my head slightly to one side, smile, and wink at you.  If I live on a farm I might say “Hey” as I look at you and point toward the loft, indicating that that’s what you should feed the steers tonight, or I could say “Hey” with little associated expression just to answer your question regarding what I’ll plant in the south 40 this year.

In trying to understand what my dog means when he says “Hey,” not only do I need to put that sound into context – combining it with the situation the dog is in and the postures and expressions he expresses as he barks; but I also need to consider that my dog’s umwelt, his accumulated life’s perceptions and experiences, are very different from mine.

If you’d like to learn more about the idea of the umwelt, the world around a living being as the creature experiences it, read “The View From The Oak” by Judith and Herbert Kohl.  Even though the book was written for older children, its a fascinating and well-written book, even for adult readers.  If you want to dig deeper, the article where Jakob vonUexkull originally coined the term umwelt and described the idea in detail is available in “Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept” edited by Claire Schiller.

“When observing animals we must try to give ourselves over to their experience and imagine worlds as foreign as any that can be found in novels or science fiction. … To become close to other worlds means giving up our own for a while” 

          Judith and Herbert Kohl, “The View From The Oak

January 17, 2008 at 5:39 am Leave a comment

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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January 2008