So what do you think, Sheba?

In the Clubhouse, I have often said that my dog, Sheba, has taught me more about language than anyone or anything else. This was not a lie. A gross exaggeration, perhaps, but not a lie.

In trying to communicate with her successfully, at least to the extent that she does not represent a danger to herself or others, I have been forced to look at how language and communication work from an entirely new perspective. And it has been fascinating.

There are times, and pretty well all of us who welcome a dog into our lives will have experienced them, when we firmly believe that they understand pretty well everything we say to them. We can speak to them in whole sentences and they appear to respond in exactly the way we might expect if they had actually understood us. And I have got into the habit of speaking quite long “commands” to Sheba. Other people who see and hear us when we are on our walks are often nonplussed, and more than once I have been asked “did your dog just understand that?” And the answer appears to me to  be “yes sort of”.

A couple of examples, both of which have elicited the question “did your dog just understand that?”:

  • With Sheba a good fifty yards in front of me, I was coming up to a fork in the path. Sheba was already making her way down to the beach: “Sheba, let’s not go to the beach; let’s go over the heath to the bay.” She turned round, bounded back and trotted up the path to the bay. Well before I had reached the fork in the path.
  • After doing her business and leaving me to clear it up, Sheba started trotting off to the exit from the park onto the road: “Alright then, but wait at the gate.” Silly thing to say really, particularly as there is no gate as such, but she trotted up to the exit and waited patiently for me to complete the rather tricky operation of a visually impaired man picking up dog poo from long grass…

Both of those are actually pretty easily explained. In the first case, she may have picked up on the words “over the heath”, which I am pretty certain I use when we take that path. More probably, however, she picked up on “Sheba”, which means that I am going to tell her to do something she is not doing, and then simply picked up on microgestures, or perhaps the direction I was looking in. I have no doubt that she understood little of the stream of words that came from my mouth as such.

And in the second example, she picked up on “Alright”, which means that she can do what she wants. The rest was sheer force of habit and good training. She does not leave the park without having her lead put on. Never.

But it certainly looked like she understood exactly what I said, and I had certainly communicated with her.

But like anyone who has anything to do with “intelligent” animals, I cannot help but wonder what actually goes on in their heads. How much “language” do they actually understand?

Clearly, any well-trained dog will respond to a relatively small number of commands. For many people, this is the pinnacle of training. Essentially, the commands we teach our dogs are little more than behavioural triggers. “When you hear this sound, do this.”

Most well-trained dogs will have learned about five of these: “Come”, “Sit”, “Down”, “Stay”, “Wait”. Whether or not they are fully obedient to the commands will depend on the trainer, but it seems to me that they do not really display any great understanding of language. They are simply responses to given sounds.

But as we get to know our dogs, we come to realize that there is certainly more to it than that. They respond to our tone of voice and body language as well. They seem to pick up on whether “Come!” means “come here immediately” or “we are going home now, so finish what you are doing and amble down here so that I can put your lead on”. Purely by our tone of voice and our demeanour.

But they also seem to identify things that we are completely unaware of. Sheba has worked out that “Come here!” does not mean the same as “Come!”. I always thought that they both meant that I wanted her to come to me for some reason, but they don’t. Sheba worked out that I only use “Come here!” when I want to put her lead on, for instance when we are leaving the park or the beach, so she interprets it as “wait there for me to catch you up” or “Carry on walking slowly so that I can catch you up, but do not leave the park/beach”. I, silly human that I am, never realized that that was what “Come here” meant. But it does. I have always used it pretty consistently in that context without realizing it. But again, is she doing much more than associating a sound with a circumstance and behaviour? Probably not.

But there are also a whole bunch of things I say to her that elicit certain responses and which require a little more cognitive processing from her: “Sheba, that way!” requires her to look at me and work out from my body language which way I want her to go. “Say hello to Tom” requires her to select the person I call “Tom” and greet him. Or “Get the ball! / Get Teddy!”. These do require her to have a small vocabulary of names of people and things (Tom, Sally, Teddy, ball, stick, …), but they are relatively simple sound/object associations.

Having said that, the sound/object association is not always the same for her as it is for me. A few years back, I wrote a post in the Clubhouse about the way in which Sheba understands the word “stick”. I have a clear idea of what a “stick” is, but Sheba has carved up her world differently. A stick is anything natural and made of wood that can potentially be thrown, dragged, fetched or chewed, and ranges from twigs to massive branches and small trees.

Although “Teddy” is her white teddy, and “Tigger” is her Tigger soft toy, “Baggins” appears to be a generic name for any soft toy, and not just the dog toy I call Baggins. Perhaps this is because Baggins was her first soft toy.

So in some way, Sheba does appear to be associating meaning to words and delineating the meaning of words in much the same way that we do.

But there is some evidence that some dogs can go a lot further than that. Betsy was found to have a vocabulary in excess of 300 words and was able to understand and respond to composite commands that she had never heard before, suggesting some rudimentary grasp of structure or syntax in language.

But all this is one-way communication. Although we think we are using language alone to communicate with our dogs, they are using far more signals from us to understand what we want. These are probably primarily visual cues from our body language and our microgestures, but may well include other senses such as smell, by which they may well be able to identify our state of mind.

But how do they communicate with us? They cannot use language, but they are remarkably inventive when they need to get us to understand something.

Recently, I was upstairs in the office, slaving over a hot computer, when I heard Sheba coming up the stairs. I heard her come into the office and then heard a clunk at my feet, where she had deposited her empty water bowl. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

When I first had Sheba, I could still see perfectly okay, but lost the sight in my good eye overnight. The other eye has worsened steadily ever since. And Sheba has worked out that I am liable to walk into or trip over things when we are out walking. So she has devised her own ways of warning me. I have never trained her, but she is increasingly becoming a pretty reliable guide. When she spots something up ahead that could be a potential hazard for me, she will generally pull me over, well away from the hazard and walk round it. If there is not enough room to give the obstacle a wide berth, she will stop and look at me about ten yards before we get to whatever it is. She then sits and looks at me until I tell her that I have seen whatever it is, and she will tentatively walk me past. Sometimes I can say “go through” or “go round”, and she will guide me accordingly.

Ultimately, what she is doing is getting my attention and allowing me to interpret what her body language is saying. I can tell the difference in her body language between “I really don’t think we can get past there without you doing something stupid” and “Just be careful and follow me”.

Ultimately, what she is doing to communicate with me is not much different from what I am doing to communicate with her. She is getting my attention (by stopping when we are on a walk or by coming up to the office and putting a paw on my knee when she needs to go out) and then letting me work out the rest from her body language and subsequent actions. And when I am communicating with her, I am doing much the same. I get her attention (“Sheba!”), sometimes give her a command, the seriousness of which she interprets from my tone of voice or my body language, and however much else I say to her, most of what she understands comes from my body language.

And in some ways, communication between humans often happens on this kind of level. We can remember interviews with our bosses or unpleasant exchanges in a pub where what is actually said is of very little import, and we may well take little notice of it. The real communication has taken place at an entirely different level, a level where tone of voice and body language are crucial. Or, of course, the sweet nothings exchanged by lovers…

Do dogs understand language? Probably not. And certainly not in the way an adult or child would, although they may have some rudiments of understanding, in the same way that a baby or toddler might. Can we communicate with them, and they with us? Undoubtedly, and some quite complex information can be exchanged.

I am pretty certain that dogs understand us far better than we understand them, but I would give an arm and a leg to know what actually goes on in their heads when we are communicating with them.

“What do you think, Sheba?”

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