Canines: Fido Finds His Voice


SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — Fetch, sit, stay, rollover … if you’ve ever tried to teach your dog these commands, you know it can be a tedious job.  Now imagine teaching your dog to use words and phrases to ask for what they want and share with you how they feel. One of the largest studies of its kind is underway to prove canines can communicate.

Meet Stella, a spunky blue heeler-catahoula mix. Her dog mom … Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist, is making headlines around the world after teaching Stella to use augmentative and alternative communication devices to express herself.

Stella’s learned 50 words and can create phrases up to five words long but stella is not the only dog.

UCSD Cognitive Scientist, Federico Rossano, is leading the largest animal communication citizen science study ever done. It’s called, “How They Can Talk” and involves 6,000 animals in 47 countries.

Rossano explains, “What we are trying to do is trying to understand to what degree they can communicate more complex thoughts. The first time I saw them putting together three, four buttons to sound like a sentence, I was pretty impressed and shocked.” “What amazed me more was when they would follow up on that because it then really felt like they were actually engaging in a conversation.”

Rossano also says “The other thing that I thought was remarkable was really to see them communicating about the needs of somebody else.”

The time it takes for a dog to learn to talk depends on how much time their human puts into teaching them.  But Rossano believes the time spent could lead us all to a better understanding of our furry friends.

Cats are also included in the study, although Professor Rossano says they are much harder to train. We also asked if one breed was a better learner than others. He said their study involved a lot of mixed breeds, but border collies, poodles and terriers seem to all be quick learners, with some learning not just dozens, but hundreds of words. But again, it all depends on how much time their owners put in to teaching them.

Contributors to this news report include: Marsha Lewis, Producer; Roque Correa, Editor and Videographer


REPORT #3012

BACKGROUND: Animal communication can be any process where information is passed from one animal to another causing a change or response in the receiving animal. It most often happens between members of a species but can also take place between different species. Some species are very social and interact all the time. This is where communication is essential for keeping these groups cohesive and organized. Animals communicate using signals, which can include visual; auditory, or sound-based; chemical, involving pheromones; or tactile, touch-based, cues. These behaviors can help animals find mates, establish dominance, defend territory, coordinate group behavior, and care for young.


PUPPIES AND COMMUNICATION: Research out of the University of Arizona suggests that puppies’ social skills may be present shortly after birth rather than learned. The study also uncovered that genetics may help explain why some dogs perform better than others on social tasks such as following pointing gestures. To better understand biology’s role in dogs’ abilities to communicate with humans, collaborators looked at how 375 of the Canine Companions organization’s 8-week-old budding service dogs performed on a series of tasks designed to measure their social communication skills. At the time of the study, the puppies were still living with their littermates and therefore, their interactions with humans had been limited, making it unlikely that the behaviors were learned. “We found that there’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go,” said study co-author Evan MacLean, assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona. However, the results showed while puppies may be born knowing how to respond to human-initiated communication, the ability to initiate communication on their own may come later.


ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND ANIMAL LANGUAGE: Researchers are looking at using machine-learning algorithms to analyze the calls of rodents, lemurs, whales, chickens, pigs, bats, cats, and more. Analyzing animal language is very different from analyzing human language. Computer scientists must instruct software programs on what to look for and how to organize the data. This process depends not only on accruing a good number of vocal recordings, but also on matching these vocal recordings with the visual social behaviors of animals. Making a Google Translate for animals has been an aspirational project that’s been in the works for the the last decade. Another factor that researchers are considering is the fact that there might be unique elements to animal language due to physiological and behavioral differences. There are suggestions for using self-supervised learning algorithms to analyze audio data in which the computer tells the researchers what patterns it’s seeing in the data. These patterns may unveil connections that are missed by the human eye.


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Federico Rossano

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