Saskatchewan

Speaking dog: Technology could lead to device that can decipher animal communication

Ever wonder what your dog is trying to tell you when it’s barking or whining? We might be one step closer to better deciphering our pets’ verbal and body language, and it’s thanks to decades of research on prairie dog communication.

Black-tailed prairie dogs are paving the way for animal translation technology

Two black-tailed prairie dogs engage in a kiss, a common gesture among black-tailed prairie dogs. Researchers haven't determined the purpose of this behaviour. (Jennifer Verdolin, PhD)

If you've ever felt a language barrier between you and your dog, you are not alone. But even as we struggle to understand what our pets are trying to tell us, the humble black-tailed prairie dog might hold the answers.

Con Slobodchikoff  has spent his career studying the intricacies of prairie dog communication. 

In an interview on the Morning Edition last week, the Arizona-based biologist and author said this research is leading the way to better understand the communication systems of other animals.

"Over a series of experiments, we have found that prairie dogs have a very sophisticated system of communication that I'm comfortable calling language," Slobodchikoff said. 

"They have all of the features that linguists say you have to find in an animal communication system to call it language." 

Prairie dogs capable of descriptive language

During decades of research, Slobodchikoff and his team found that prairie dogs are capable of describing physical attributes of predators through their alarm calls. With a single chirp, a prairie dog is able to communicate the size, shape, speed and even clothing of humans. 

"We found that prairie dogs can describe not only the species of predator that is approaching, such as coyote, human, or hawk, but they can also describe the physical features of a predator," Slobodchikoff said.

Jennifer Verdolin, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, has researched prairie dogs alongside Slobodchikoff. Her area of expertise is in animal personality, and she says prairie dog body language reveals a lot of information about their social networks.

Prairie dogs engage in one particularly unique form of communication: kissing.

Verdolin says researchers aren't entirely sure what prairie dogs are communicating through kissing, but there are a few theories.

"A kiss tells you a lot," Verdolin said. "It tells you what you ate recently. You can often see young [prairie dogs] pulling at an adult that has food in their mouth and sticking their face in their mouth. So they may be trying to get a taste of, 'what do I eat here? What's the thing I'm supposed to eat?'"

There is a lot of information that prairie dogs potentially get from kissing, including:

  • Determining which colony a given animal is from.
  • Receiving hormonal information on a possible mate.
  • Testing the strength of competitors.
  • Social bonding.
A black-tailed prairie dog observes its surroundings. Prairie dogs are highly social animals capable of complex communication. (Jennifer Verdolin, PhD)

Prairie dog colonies show evidence of distinct cultures

"We also know that they have dialects," Verdolin said. "There is so much geographical variation, much like we find in human language, and prairie dogs that live farther apart have more difference in their communication style."

The idea is that we have a device that you can point to a dog, and the device analyzes the dog's body language and vocal signals and says, 'I'm hungry or please let me out, I need to pee or you're scaring me,' or something along those lines.- Con Slobodchikoff, Arizona researcher on potential technology 

Verdolin says the presence of different communication styles suggests distinct cultures among different prairie dog colonies.

"More socially complex organisms are more likely to have culture," Verdolin said. "Their communication is just one element of other parts of their behaviour that might vary from place to place. And that is the very thing that we think about as culture."

Ever wonder what your dog is trying to tell you when it’s barking or whining? We might be one step closer to deciphering our pets’ verbal and body language - and it’s thanks to research done on prairie dog communication. We hear from a prairie dog expert on how his research is leading to animal language translation.

Slobodchikoff's work with black-tailed prairie dogs led him to wonder whether other animals have complex communication systems.

After researching the possibilities of other animal language systems, Slobodchikoff wrote a book about this issue, Chasing Doctor Dolittle, which was published in 2012.

"I found that we had an enormous number of papers in the scientific literature that pointed to or suggested that other animals do indeed have their own languages," Slobodchikoff said. "So I think that the possibility is huge." 

New developments 

A decade later, Slobodchikoff is working on a new endeavour in animal language research: translation technology. He is the CEO of Zoolingua, a startup working on technology to translate animal language, both verbal and somatic.

The goal with this technology is to translate the language of domestic animals, particularly dogs.

"The idea is that we have a device that you can point to a dog, and the device analyzes the dog's body language and vocal signals and says, 'I'm hungry or please let me out, I need to pee or you're scaring me,' or something along those lines," Slobodchikoff said.

Verdolin believes that understanding distinct personalities of animals is the key to understanding animal communication systems, too.

"You need to actually pay attention to who your dog is, just like you would to who your friend is or who your child is and what their individual needs are," Verdolin said. "And then you work within that."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Deanna Patterson is a journalist with CBC Saskatchewan. You can email story ideas to deanna.patterson@cbc.ca.

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