Thursday, June 17, 2021

Canine Conversations

A speech language pathologist, Christina Hunger, claims to have taught her dog, Stella, to "talk":

Can That Dog on Instagram Really Talk?

The communication method depends on a soundboard like those used by some apes, with the animal pushing buttons that stand for words. They produce sound recordings of words such as "outside" and "play." According to the author of the above article, Jane C. Hu, a cognitive scientist, there's little doubt that Stella "understands" the meanings of some buttons in the sense that she knows certain actions, in terms of choosing a button to push, cause certain results. Was she deliberately combining words to form a message when she pushed "outside" followed by "Stella"? Maybe. I'm highly skeptical, however, that she combined "good" and "bye" to make "goodbye" or that "'Later Jake' (Jake is Hunger’s partner), in response to him doing a chore, meant 'do that later'," and Hu seems to agree. Granted, it would be big news to discover "a dog could plan future events and express those desires," but does Stella's performance prove her capable of abstract thought to that extent?

I'm neither a cognitive scientist, a linguist, nor a zoologist. Reacting as an interested layperson, though, I don't go so far in the skeptical direction as a critic of ape communication I read about somewhere who dismissed an ape's situation-appropriate use of "please" as the animal's having been trained to push that particular key before making a request. How is that different from a toddler's understanding of "please"? He or she doesn't start out knowing what the word "means." It's simply a noise he has to make to get adults to listen when he wants something.

Another catch in interpreting Stella's dialogues with her mistress, as pointed out by Alexandra Horowitz, a psychology professor and expert on dog cognition, is that the dog's "vocabulary" is limited by the available buttons. Also, it's possible that Stella, instead of acting independently, may be responding to unconscious signals from her owner. Yet we know dogs do "understand" some words in the sense of associating specific sounds with things, people, and actions. A border collie (recognized as one of the most intelligent breeds) named Rico is famous for his 200-word vocabulary. After being ordered to go fetch any one of the objects whose name he knew, he could get it from a different room, a procedure that eliminated the risk of his picking up cues from a human observer:


Psychologist Steven Pinker, author of THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, takes a dim view of attempts to teach animals some form of human language, as if learning to "talk" would prove the animals' intelligence. He maintains that rather than trying to induce apes and dolphins to communicate like us, we should focus on understanding their own innate modes of communication. He may have a point. If IQ were measured by how many different odors one could distinguish, how would our "intelligence" compare to that of dogs?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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