Monday, June 6, 2011

On "How to Speak Dog" by Stanley Coren ****

So do animals speak languages? When you ask people who are animal lovers, the answer seems to be yes. Coren makes the case that dogs have a language in this book. Now, it's not like a human language. He calls it a simple language (akin to a very small child's), as much dependent on gesture and body language as on sound. He makes this case because animals manage to communicate meaningful things to each other, because they can talk about things not in the current setting (e.g., calling the pack together), because they have a rudimentary grammar (a growl followed by a bark may have a different meaning than a bark followed by a growl, and certain gestures never accompany certain kinds of sounds). Granted, you're not going to get a dog to talk about philosophy, but then, Coren says, you won't get most people to talk about that either: more than two-thirds of what we say has to do with social interaction, which is what a dog's speech is confined to.

But these are the conclusions of Coren's book. Most of the book is not devoted to arguing these points but rather to delineating for us humans just what dogs are saying when they put a hand on our knee or bark at a cat. And in this Coren has some absolutely fascinating subject matter. Individual chapters go into the meaning of different sounds, scents, and of various sets of gestures--with the tail, the ears, the eyes, the face, and the body. Much of dog speech has to do with establishing who's boss and who is going to follow, and as Coren points out, is primarily about heading off a fight rather than getting involved in one. Hence, if a dog looks away, it is taking a subordinate role as opposed to one who continues to stare.

This has implications for how we as humans deal with dogs as well. Coren has some cool anecdotes, the most memorable to me being one in which a dog would continually come and sit on the couch next to a woman when her husband was gone. The dog would put his heavy head on the woman's lap along with a paw. He seemed to want constant affection, but he was heavy and hot and tiresome. She'd move over to make room for him, but he'd move again to be on her. Coren pointed out that in fact the dog was not looking for affection. It was claiming that it was the boss, demonstrating that it ruled the house when the woman's husband was gone. In another case of misunderstanding, a dog would continually wet the floor when a man came home, though it didn't wet the floor otherwise. Obviously, the dog was being disrespectful and hateful--or so it might seem. In fact, in dog language, it was trying to show its submissiveness to the man, as in I'm so like a little puppy around you that I can't even control my bowels, so don't beat me up.

An interesting discussion regards the gesture of pointing, which dogs do differently than humans. Dogs tend to look at the pointer when we use our hands rather than at the thing that is being pointed at. In dog speak, the way to point is with one's body, by turning one's head, just as a dog would point with other dogs. Coren believes this has, in part, to do with dogs less satisfactory eyesight.

Later chapters explore some tidbits on dogs and scent (they have something like four to five times the number of scent receptors that humans do, which explains why they can distinguish scents so much better than we can, making up for shortages in sight), on differing dialects among dogs, of dogs and cats, and of attempts to teach dogs human language. The dogs and cats section shows how cats in fact have their own gestural language that, in many ways, differs from dogs. Hence, this can lead to conflict, especially when the dog or cat has not grown up in a mixed home. Take, for example, rolling over to expose the belly. In a dog, this is a move showing submission; in a cat, this is an attack pose.

The chapter on dogs learning human language focuses mostly on apes, since that's where most research has actually been done. Primates, as the author points out, hold a lot more promise in this regard because of their greater dexterity with regard to hands. However, in the 1960s, Elisabeth Mann Borgese did try to train her dog Arli to use a keyboard to type out requests and demands, starting first with words and then moving to individual letters. Eventually, he learned to count to four and to type the words dog, cat, arlie, bird, ball, and bone. But was it really language? There is a humorous passage regarding submission of his poetry to a literary journal, which compared his work to e e cummings and encouraged Arli to continue in his pursuits.

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