Talking to Animals

farsideI have always been a fan of Gary Larson’s Far Side and  this cartoon is one of my favorites.  It comes to mind every time I see someone having a long, one-sided conversation with their dog.  Really? my Inner Curmudgeon says.   It’s a dog.  Then I find myself at the cat rescue, where I volunteer, talking to the cats awaiting adoption.  Of course, I tell them all they are beautiful, but to the feisty  ones, I explain that they have to learn to be nicer if they want to find a home.   I tell the frightened or shy ones, We all love kitties here … there’s nothing to be afraid of.   And in the park, I talk to most of the animals, too, but especially the squirrels.   When a squirrel runs up, begging for a treat, I say, Hello, Little Man, then either offer them a peanut or apologize for not having any today.   Do you think its sexist that I call them all Little Man?   It’s hard to tell with squirrels with the evidence hidden behind that fluffy tail, and Hello Little Man / Girl, is so awkward.  I suppose I could say, Hello, Little Bushy Tailed One.  I talk to my grand-dogs, Roxy, Darla and Agnes, too, mostly to tell them what good dogs they are and to learn a few secrets about my daughter and son-in-law.    You know what they say … Out of the mouth of dogs.

In an article in the Atlantic, professor of psychology at Western Carolina University Hal Herzog says First of all, talking to our pets is absolutely natural. Human beings are natural anthropomorphizers, meaning we naturally tend to [ascribe] all kinds of thoughts and meanings to other things in our lives.  Well, isn’t that a relief.  The article goes on to say that lonely people are much more likely to talk to their animals.  After all, lonely people talk to stuffed animals.   The same article suggests that people who have little control in their life wants to feel more secure in uncertain circumstances, and anthropomorphizing allows him to predict pet’s action based on interpersonal experience.  Or this: To share a home with a living being whose mind you can’t understand and whose actions you can’t anticipate is to live in a state of unpredictability and disconnectedness. So people imagine a mind that understands, and talk to it.

So, do dogs … and other animals … really understand what we say to them?  According to, Humans have a special relationship with house pets, and a full 62 percent claim that their pets understand the words that they speak.   While there’s no way to know exactly how much Fido gets what you’re saying, scientists have proven that some dogs, apes and even dolphins can understand spoken language.  Rico, the wonder collie was able to accurately respond to 200 words, putting him in league with most human toddlers.  Kanzi, a bonobo ape was able to demonstrate his understanding of more than 3,000 English words and  a pair of bottlenose dolphins demonstrated that they were able to understand full sentences in a 1984 study.  Trainers used computer-generated sounds and hand signals to communicate with the dolphins, who were able to follow instructions ranging from two to five words in length.

Personally , I doubt that means they understand the words in the sense that we do.   It is one thing teach an animal to respond to a sound in a certain way, entirely another to understand the word.   Woofie responds when you call Woofie because to him it means Look over here or here’s a treat, not because he knows it’s his name.   No! means You’re in trouble, Woofie and, Nice Dog means you are about to get petted.   I have friends who are training a Lab to be a guide dog for the blind and the training includes many repeated commands so the animal can follow complex instructions.  The same training could probably done with an assortment of noises and whistles.  In fact, dogs for use by the deaf are trained using hand signals.  Some circumstantial evidence that they don’t understand the words … try saying, Woofie, you are such a bad dog in a nice tone of voice and see how he responds.    Cats are another story.  It is the nature of felines (and one of the reasons I love them) that even if they understood us, they wouldn’t let us know.   And squirrels?   They just stand there begging until I walk away.

How about you?  Do you think animals can understand what you say?

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3 Comments on “Talking to Animals”

  1. barrythewiz Says:

    My dogs definitely respond to certain things I say. “Wanna go out?” gets me two dogs at the back door. But OE is absolutely right. There is no complex comprehension. It is simply Pavlovian response. I will say this: when Noki misbehaves and makes me angry, he knows he was bad and will try to make up to me with slobber kisses and snuggles.

  2. gwennym Says:

    I talk to my 2 cats every day — I tell them to be good kitties when I leave for work, then ask if they had a good day and if they were good kitties. I know I’m nuts. I don’t care.

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