2017-02-09 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

I miss Gary Larson and his Far Side cartoons. One favorite is the comic below: “What we say to dogs/ what they hear” which suggests dogs only decipher their own name when we speak to them. If that’s so, why do so many owners resort to spelling special words like “walk” or “cookie” when they don’t want their dogs to get too excited too soon?

Findings of three recent studies show dogs are capable of interpreting vocabulary, emotional tones and intonation:

Vocabulary: According to November 2012 study by Emile van der Zee and colleagues from the University of Lincoln in England, dogs learn to associate words with objects in a different way from humans. Children between the ages of two and three typically learn to associate objects by shape. For example, “ball” would label any object they viewed as round.

In this study, scientists presented Gable, a fiveyear old Border Collie, with similar choices to see if this ‘shape distinction’ existed in dogs. They found after a brief training period, Gable learned to associate the name of an object with its size, identifying other objects of similar size by the same name. After a longer period of exposure to both a name and an object, the dog learned to associate a word to other objects of similar textures, but not to objects of similar shape.

The researchers felt the results suggest dogs (or at least this Border Collie) process and associate words with objects in qualitatively different ways than humans do. They believed this may be due to differences in how evolution has shaped human and dog senses of perceiving shape, texture or size.

Left brain vs. right brain: A study in Current Biology from November 2014 reported dogs do pay attention to the meaning of words, and they process that information in a different part of the brain from where they process emotional cues in speech. Victoria Ratcliffe, then a graduate student at the University of Sussex in England, set up an experiment to determine whether dogs can discern meaningful words from gibberish.

Previous studies showed that dogs have hemispheric biases--left brain versus right--when they process the vocalization sounds of other dogs. The next step was to investigate whether dogs show similar biases responding to information conveyed in human speech.

Ratcliffe brought 250 dogs of many breeds into her lab, and tested each by putting a speaker on either side of each dog’s head and playing the command “Come” out of both speakers. She then manipulated the speech; sometimes she removed her voice inflections, sometimes she kept the inflections but replaced meaningful words with garbled sound. During this test, she recorded which way the dogs turned their heads–left or right, even though both speakers were playing the same sounds. Ratcliffe noted: “The input from each ear is mainly transmitted to the opposite hemisphere of the brain.”

A pattern emerged: “When the dogs heard commands that had meaningful words in them, about 80 percent of the dogs turned to the right. When they heard commands with just emotional cues in them, most dogs turned to the left.”

These results demonstrate dogs are able to differentiate between meaningful and meaningless sound sequences. The researcher wrote, “The study also suggests that a dog’s brain breaks up speech into two parts: the emotional cues and the meaning of the words. Then it processes these two components on opposite sides of the brain: emotional cues on the right, meaning of words on the left. (Yes, it’s opposite to the way the dogs turned.)”

This news is heartening because our dogs may not understand everything we are blabbering to them, but at least they are listening to us.

Baby talk: Many people speak to their pets as if they were little kids. They raise their voice an octave, use juvenile words like “din din” instead of “dinner” and speak slower. Research published last month from the City University of New York (CUNY) shows owners address both adult dogs and puppies in this manner, but discovered puppies respond more readily to baby talk.

The same high-pitch, slow-tempo type of talk does engage human infants’ attention and does promote their growth of language. Does it work the same way with dogs? A research team, led by Dr. Nicolas Mathevon of Hunter College, CUNY, and the University of Lyon/ Saint-Etienne, demonstrated puppies are highly reactive to juvenile dog-directed speech while adult dogs do not differ in their reaction to baby talk when compared to normal speech, even though human speakers use baby talk with dogs of all ages.

Perhaps people consciously or unconsciously wish to make themselves better understood by their dogs through this babyish chatter. I think some people just enjoy this way of speaking as an endearment to their dogs. The jury is still out about whether saying, “Time for puppy beddy-bye!” provides more linguistic benefit to Sugar your Malti-Poo than saying: “We’re going to sleep now.” Maybe it depends on how old Sugar is.

K-9 Kissing Booth at Last Hope- Sat., Feb. 11 from noon to 4 p.m. Celebrate Valentine Day by taking a photo with your dog or a Last Hope dog. Donation-$7. Address: 3300 Beltagh Ave., Wantagh. For more info., call 631-946-9528.

For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Zeus” is a Lhasa mix left behind in an eviction. He was very matted, revealing a skin condition on his back when he was groomed at the shelter. Despite enduring neglect, Zeus is a sweetheart. “Bibbly” 6- 492 is an adorable seven-month-old kitten who grew up at the shelter. Both deserve loving homes.

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