Bill Kirby: What does your dog think when you talk to it? Probably not what you think

·2 min read

"I’m a lot less cranky when it’s just me and my dog.”

– Bob Peterson

I have been spending more time with my dog.

His idea.

My wife, after all, had arranged his adoption last year, showered him with attention, fed him regularly and generally spoiled him. But dogs are funny. They're like that little nephew you think is so irritating and try to avoid, but who accepts your challenge and tries to win you over with cute attention.

Bill Kirby, Augusta Chronicle
Bill Kirby, Augusta Chronicle

The little white terrier started to follow me around the house. Then we started playing fetch games. Then he started bringing his toys my way and nudging them into my leg if I didn't pay attention. If I'm watching TV, he loves to curl up beside me.

So now we're pals.

We talk, and it's funny, when you think about it, how we talk to our dogs.

I do it, you do it. They do it in other countries.

It's a sort of baby-talk sing-song full of warmth and affection, that can turn sharp in an instant when danger (or an open door) appears.

And while we are comfortable with it, and certainly familiar with it, we could ask: What do the dogs think?

That is hard to say.

The research is incomplete, but most of us probably suspect that our beloved fur-coat companions are mostly reactive to voice tone and body language.

That would probably be right.

"We like to think that our dogs understand what we say," writes Susan Pinker in The Wall Street Journal, "but the scientific evidence for true language comprehension in dogs is sparse."

A German collie named Rico can recognize 200 different words, she writes, but for most mutts "context, gesture and tone of voice signify much more to the average dog than human speech."

Marianna Boros, an international dog researcher in Hungary, agrees.

"When it comes to lab conditions, it turns out that dogs are not good at word meanings," she says.

Dogs, however, recognize patterns.

They might not be breaking down human speech the way we do, but they can perceive certain sequences of sound and anticipate what sound will usually follow another.

Pinker compares it to our "smart phones" filling in the spell check functions in a text message.

Know who else does the same thing to predict word and syllable probabilities?

Babies.

Boros has found that dogs use the same neural hardware that 8-month-old humans use in recognizing speech patterns.

Boros says it "suggests that the ability to segment speech is a general mammalian capacity" that might have evolved because dogs and humans have been living together for so long.

It also might explain why we talk to dogs the same way we talk to babies, thinking perhaps of the same affection and joy and hope for their happiness.

That, and they're very good listeners.

Bill Kirby has reported, photographed and commented on life in Augusta and Georgia for 45 years.

This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Bill Kirby: Dogs might not know what we're saying, but listen anyway