Canine behavior expert Dr. Stanley Coren has determined that your dog, assuming he is of average intelligence, understands about 165 words in whatever language you speak around him. Your cat, by comparison, understands roughly 25 to 35 words. But before you start thinking disparaging thoughts about feline intelligence, consider this: You, assuming you are a pet owner of average intelligence, probably don’t understand a single vocalization made by either your dog or your cat. You might have a good sense of how your pet feels—based on behaviors such as tail wagging and purring—but you probably couldn’t identify what any one specific vocalization means.
So how is it that during our long relationships with dogs and cats they have come to understand our vocalizations, but we haven’t progressed much past understanding tail wagging and purring? To start with, our companion animals spend their lives closely observing all of our gestures, words and vocal tones and the behaviors that accompany them. It benefits cats, dogs, and other domesticated species to learn as much as they can about our behavior so that they can successfully coexist with us. Humans, on the other hand, don’t pay as much attention to animals. Although it would greatly enrich our relationships with them to learn as much about their behavior, for the most part we have relied on them to figure us out.
However, technology combined with diligent research will soon change this one-way communication between animals and ourselves. A company called Zoolingua, established in 2017, wants to help people learn “Dog,” and later, “Cat,” as well as other animal communication systems. Zoolingua’s driving force is Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, an animal behaviorist and conservation biologist.
Slobodchikoff studied the social behavior and communication system of prairie dogs for more than 30 years. As part of his research, he recorded prairie dog warning calls and then used a software program to analyze the frequencies of the calls. Slobodchikoff discovered that the prairie dogs weren’t just shouting out generic warnings whenever they spotted predators, such as hawks, coyotes, dogs and humans. They were, in fact, using different calls to specify different types of predators. Slobodchikoff also noticed subtle variations in the call for “human” and discovered that the prairie dogs were not only calling out “human,” they were describing the human, too. Slobodchikoff discovered that prairie dog vocalizations can function as nouns, adjectives and adverbs, enabling them to communicate surprisingly specific information, such as “small human wearing blue shirt walking slowly.”
After decoding over 100 different prairie dog calls, Slobodchikoff decided to apply the same research methodology to other animals. So he created Zoolingua, with the goal of first focusing on decoding the communication of dogs, and later cats, horses, cows, pigs, goats and eventually the rest of the animal kingdom.
With the support of a team of accomplished scientists, he is analyzing videos of dog vocalizations and behavior in specific contexts, classifying the various forms of communication, and then using A.I. technology to translate the communications into English. The end result of this research will be an app that could run on a cell phone and decode your dog’s vocalizations, facial expressions and actions and then tell you what your dog is communicating.
Zoolingua’s goal for their dog decoder is to enrich our relationships with our dogs. Imagine being able to know the difference between a “woof” that means “play with me,” and one that means, “take me for a walk,” or “thunder scares me.” But the benefits of a dog translator aren’t limited to just improving a pet owner’s relationship with his dog. Vets could use the technology to better manage a dog’s health care. Shelters could use it to better understand the needs of abandoned dogs and to more successfully rehabilitate problem dogs. Trainers—from those who teach dogs obedience and agility to those who train military dogs—might discover more effective ways to accomplish their goals. This new technology could redefine the human-dog relationship.
And later, when other animal communication systems are decoded, farmers and ranchers could use the translators to improve animal welfare for livestock. Finally, when the technology is applied to wild animal communication, conservation biologists might learn more about what endangered and at-risk species need in order to survive.
Slobodchikoff’s work is slowly realizing one of humankind’s most ancient dreams—to talk to the animals. Hopefully, when we finally understand what animals are saying, we will use what we learn to make things better for them.
Dr. Con Slobodchikoff believes that Zoolingua will have the dog translator completed within the next few years, so stay tuned! Learn more at zoolingua.com