Can Dogs Talk?
“I’m just in it for the cookies!”*
If you listened to the above clip, it sounded like the husky was saying “I love you”. But was he? Stanley Coren, psychologist and dog expert from the University of British Columbia:
What’s happening between dog and owner-turned-voice-coach is fairly straightforward, Coren says: Owner hears the dog making a sound that resembles a phrase, says the phrase back to the dog, who then repeats the sound and is rewarded with a treat. Eventually the dog learns a modified version of her original sound. As Lucas puts it, “dogs have limited vocal imitation skills, so these sounds usually need to be shaped by selective attention and social reward.”
The major problem? Consonants! According to Gary Lucas, a visiting scholar in psychology at Indiana University Bloomington:
They “don’t use their tongues and lips very well, and that makes it difficult for them to match many of the sounds that their human partners make,” Lucas says. “Try saying ‘puppy’ without using your lips and tongue.”
Are you starting to see the dream of yourself as Henry Higgins and your trusty canine as Eliza Doolittle slip away? Fear not. Dogs do not need to be able to pronounce words in order to understand them. Rico, a border collie, learned the names of over 200 objects. When training, your dog should be looking at you constantly for direction, either through hand motions or eye contact. And when you think about it, do you want your dog constantly asking, “Time for walkies? eh? Time for walkies?”
*Coren says. “If dogs could talk, they would tell you, ‘I’m just in it for the cookies.'”