Posts tagged ‘communication’

A Lesson

One of Charlie’s remaining quirks is a continued profound fascination with, and sometimes irrational fear of, reflections and other shiny or sparkly things.

One of the ways this manifests is in his unswerving conviction that his reflection is some kind of unspeakably evil thing.

Early this morning I was having a cup of coffee and catching up on a bit of reading when Charlie caught sight of an evil thing in the glass front of the fireplace.

Charlie was transfixed by his reflection. He went stiff-legged and bug-eyed. He piloerected from the front of his forehead to the tip of his half-raised tail. He started growling softly but quickly escalated to an eerily accurate imitation of the demon Pazuzu.

I looked down at Audie, who was lying at my feet. Audie met my gaze with the kind of deep look that conveys an entire conversation. He got up, trotted across the room and picked up Charlie’s favorite stuffed toy. He carried it over to his irrational, ranting buddy and playbowed. Charlie woke from his trance, went soft, wagged his tail at Audie and the two of them moved away to play tug games together.

Audie (whose play was rooted more from of a sense of duty than real enthusiasm) quickly tired of the game and returned to his spot at my feet. Unfortunately once he was no longer distracted by the game, it didn’t take Charlie long to discover that the unspeakable evil had returned to the fireplace and he continued his tirade.

Audie and I had another silent conversation and, being a dog with a strong sense of duty, he trotted over to the horrid little dog at fireplace again.  Eschewing the toy, this time Audie put on his best bendy, prancy, head-rolling, come-hither body language and successfully flirted Charlie’s attention away from the abomination in the window.

The ploy worked and the boys wrestled a bit. They got distracted by a squirrel on the deck and Audie laid at my feet again.

And once Charlie’s attention was free to roam on its own – it made a bee-line for the same ugly, obsessive place.

I could tell Audie had moved from dutiful to annoyed because this time he didn’t even look at me. He just got up, snatched a dirty sock off the floor, marched over the fireplace and stepped between Charlie and the object of his obsession in a coldly calculating way. Audie blocked the fireplace and stared at Charlie in obvious contempt until Charlie quit ululating and averted his gaze. Audie returned to my feet, spat out the sock and sighed in a distinctly annoyed way – but instead of relaxing he remained alert.

In the mean time Charlie had hopped up onto the couch to sulk. He averted his gaze from Audie’s direction (and mine) and fixed it on a blank spot on the wall, apparently trying to stare a hole through it. He remained like this, hunkered down, ears pinned back, glaring at the epic unfairness of it all until the sound of the UPS truck broke his rumination.

All the dogs ran to the door, but we’ve worked on this. They barked a bit, then sat quietly and attentively near the door while the driver dropped off two boxes and three dog treats before he rang the bell and walked away. They were antsy, but stayed generally sitting until I picked up the boxes – and the treats – and rewarded their good behavior.

The three dogs drifted around me for a while in a soft, curving, happy mass. Glad to be together, pleased to have been given an unexpected treat and proud to have earned it. Sadly, the serenity didn’t last long. And when the joy of the moment had passed, each of the dogs wandered off to pursue his own interests. Unfortunately Charlie’s interest went immediately back to staring down his demon.

Audie had settled on one of the dog beds to work on a bone. He tried to ignore the shrieking abomination across the room, he really did. But the utter wrongness of it could not be denied. And it could not be allowed to continue.

Audie dropped the bone, narrowed his eyes, laid back his ears and darted across the room. He’d given up on asking Charlie to agree to stop his annoying, unbalanced behavior. He would make it happen.

Audie delivered a swift muzzle punch to Charlie’s left flank. The impact threw Charlie off balance and instantly pulled his attention away from the monster in the fireplace. He spun around and yelped more, I think, in surprise than in pain. He took one look at Audie’s intensely annoyed expression and dropped to grovel softly – and quietly – at his feet. Audie stalked around Charlie to block him once more from the fireplace and Charlie got up and slunk away to the kitchen.

Audie stood claiming the fireplace until he was sure Charlie wasn’t going to return. Then he resumed his preferred position at my feet.

A while after Charlie banished himself to the kitchen to process events I took the dogs outside for a break. Charlie and Audie romped together as if nothing had happened. Charlie didn’t express any fear or mistrust of Audie. And Audie showed no trace of resentment or unwarranted bossiness toward Charlie. (And Zip was as haughty and aloof as she’s ever been.)

Life in my dogs’ world went on much as it always has with only one notable exception. This happened more than seven hours ago – and Charlie hasn’t so much as looked at the fireplace since.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere…

November 15, 2010 at 5:51 pm 9 comments

What Did You Say?

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has studied the links between brain structure and function including the phenomena of synesthesia where people experience sensations such as seeing tastes or hearing colors. He proposed that language may have evolved from cross-activation of adjacent sense and data processing areas in the brain.

Humans innately recognize properties that senses such as sound and sight or touch and taste have in common. The common characteristics, such as the sharp sound quality of a word — and the jagged shape that that sound evokes have been studied in the ‘bouba/kiki effect.’ The bouba/kiki effect is based on the results of an experiment where two abstract shapes, one blobby and the other spiky, were shown to people who were then asked to relate the nonsense words bouba and kiki to the shapes. People consistently (95 to 98% of the time) described the blobby shape as bouba and the spiky shape as kiki.

In an interesting parallel, the author of this website proposes that testing non-hearing people would likely provide similar results.  The author noted that when he finger-spelled the visual-phonetic words bouba and kiki in manual alphabet, he discovered that the hand-shapes for K and I are angular and sharp and the hand-shapes for B and O are round and soft. 

Ramachandran proposes that human language may have evolved through this cross-wiring of sensory information in three steps.  First meaningful synesthetic correspondence between sound and vision are recorded in memory.  Second, in a sort of mimicry we imitate the sound relation with our mouths to express an idea of the visual relation.  Third, body language and hand gestures could be linked to the tongue, lip and mouth movements.  These three systems may have worked together synergistically to create primitive language.

A study conducted at the Department of Ethology, Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary found that humans were able to accurately categorize recorded dog barks according to emotional context. The study reported that acoustic parameters including tonality pitch and inter-bark time intervals were the key factors used by human listeners in assessing the meaning of the barks.

According to the study, the emotional content of the barks could be described by Morton’s structural–acoustic rules. Low-pitched barks were generally described as aggressive and high-pitched barks were described as either fearful or desperate.  

Morton hypothesized that low-pitched and atonal sounds signal aggressive intent and that high-pitched and tonal sounds signal friendly or submissive intentions.  His basic argument was that larger bodied animals emit lower frequency sounds and young or small-bodied animals emit higher pitched sounds.  This allows the animals hearing the sounds to predict the size (and general degree of threat) of the animal making the sounds. 

We communicate with our dogs using a combination of all of our senses. Both humans and dog place emphasis on body and facial signals and, though sound is important, it is not the key factor in our interspecies communication.  Through thousands of years of domestication, dogs have become sensitive to human communication signals. This process was aided by the dog’s acute senses.

In light of the ‘bouba/kiki effect’ I find it interesting to note that the words used for many commands that require a dog to pay attention and take quick action (sit, front, fetch – or Bam!) tend to be atonal and sharp-sounding; and the sounds we use when we want to slow or calm a dog (whoa, down, wait, stay) tend to be tonal, round-sounding words.

Many people yak at their dogs in endless, pointless syllables that encourage the dog to just tune them out.  Instead of chattering on in a constant, meaningless way to your dog, keep in mind that the words you use to communicate with him are important.

Say less to your dog.  Pay attention to the words and the tone you use.  Use words to create meaning in your dog’s life – don’t add to his confusion.

April 9, 2008 at 10:22 pm 3 comments

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


Copyright notice

All original content on this Web site is copyright © on the date of publication by this author. All rights reserved except, of course, that others may quote from original content under the 'Fair Use' provisions of US copyright law.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 284 other subscribers

RSS New Stuff in our Library

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

Top Clicks

  • None
Top Dog Blog
Featured in Alltop


Add to Technorati Favorites
Dog Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory
blogarama - the blog directory
Blog Directory
Blog Directory & Search engine
March 2023