About Talking to the Animals

by Dr. Jon Klingborg

I always seem to have an ongoing conversation with my pets.  From asking them ‘how is your day going?’ to ‘would you like a treat?,’ every thought is conveyed in  a complete sentences.  At least the family dog makes me feel a little like Dr. Dolittle, the fictitious English physician who could talk with the animals.  Our cat seems to regard every conversation as a prompt for me to fill his food dish, whereas the chinchilla and finches aren’t very interested in what I have to say.

            There are a few studies published that maintain dogs can understand over 100 separate words.  It is said that some dogs have the ‘vocabulary’ of a three-year old child.  In 2004, scientists were excited to find a dog named Rico was shown to possess a cognitive skill called ‘free mapping.’ 

            Free Mapping is a sort of process-of-elimination, and is one of the ways that children learn to pick up language so quickly. If you ask a child to get a type of fruit that she’s never seen (a tangerine, for example), if the youngster sees and identifies the bananas and apples that are also in the fruit bowl, she will select the tangerine because it is not one of the fruits that she recognizes.

            Rico the dog was also able to use the process of free mapping to select the correct object when it was placed with other toys that he had already ‘named.’  Certainly, most dog owners have eventually reached the point where they are spelling key words such as t-r-e-a-t or w-a-l-k in front of the dog.  Whether or not dogs have a three-year old child’s vocabulary, they definitely don’t seem to spell very well.

            So, how do we develop this cognitive skill in dogs without having to buy “Canine Einstein” DVDs for them to watch?  Dog trainers will tell you to use simple key words that have one or two syllables at most, a different word should be used for each command, and the words shouldn’t rhyme with “No.”              One word that owners mistakenly use in two contexts is “down”.  Owners will order a “down” when a dog has jumped on them when they should have used the word “off.”  A real “down” is used to direct a dog to lie down after a “sit.”

            It’s important to keep the language simple because dogs are masters of reading the owner’s body language more than just focusing on the words.  With my (not-so-gifted) pooch, whenever I move toward the door and ask her ‘do you want to go outside?,’ she gets up and goes outside.  Now, if I move toward the door and ask her ‘do you want to get eaten by a bear?.’ she will still get up and go outside with enthusiasm.  However, if I move toward the door and say ‘do you want a treat?’— well, shame on me--- I just uttered a magic word that will cause conflict and confusion to her doggie brain. 

            There are many types of intelligence, and your dog doesn’t have to know 150 words to be at the top of the class. In fact, instead of a spelling bee to test your dog’s smarts, perhaps it would be more fun to have a “smelling bee.”  That’s a competition your dog is bound to enjoy!