Dogs have a long evolutionary history with humans, but dogs talking to us is new and surprising. We knew that dogs were smart, especially when their welfare was involved. But while dogs may have the brain power, they do not have the vocal structures to allow them to speak to humans.
Dogs have a vocabulary of barks, howls, whines, etc. that other dogs seem to understand, that some owners can sometimes figure out. My dog seems to understand me when I give her a statement in English and I always try to guess what she is thinking. Some dogs are also bilingual.
But new technology allows dogs to master a small number of relevant statements that allow them to talk back to us. This is new.
Dogs have had a long time to figure us out verbally. Dogs domesticated themselves about 30,000 years ago. The archeological record shows that wolves and dogs diverged then, and it was not too long until dogs achieved personhood with humans. This was signified by dogs being buried with their ancient masters. This only took a few thousand years or less.
This was immortalized in The Odyssey, the book by the Greek Homer written about 800 BC. In The Odyssey, Ulysses returns to his home after being away for twenty years in the war against Troy.
He is in a divinely-assisted disguise but his dog, Argos, instantly recognized him before anyone else does. Ulysses marvels, “Argos has passed into the darkness of death, now that he has fulfilled his destiny and seen his master once more after twenty years.”
One of dogs first roles was to assist their humans in hunting and perhaps also herding. In this role the dogs learned the meaning of “go, quiet, fetch, attack, stay, hide, no barking.” Hunting scenes in rock art that depict dogs hunting with men can be found in Europe and Australia that date back to 5,000 BC.
Somethings happened during the Covid pandemic when quarantined people had time on their hands. It involved developing a floor pad with push buttons imbedded in it and attached to a computer with speakers.
Each button has a dog action or emotion associated with it. The dog has to be shown what each button means. Like “outside, time to eat, lets play ,time for a treat.”
One owner was at first puzzled when her dog pressed buttons in succession that said “Eleanor! No! Help! Mad!.” Followed by “Go ,Golf Cart!” Investigation revealed that her daughter, Eleanor, had promised the dog a ride in the golf cart.
But it had started to rain and Eleanor had decided to fix something inside. But the dog did not forget and still wanted its ride in the golf cart. This dog was speaking its mind.
Commercial kits are now available with a number of assignable buttons to help the beginner. One could think of some practical uses, for example, use one as a medical alert button for people with diabetes. Or just for fun. One sports fan even assigned a button for his dog to cheer whenever the Minnesota Vikings scored a touchdown. How about whenever the USA scored a gold medal in the Olympics? Whenever the dog smelled or heard a racoon or a rat?
Individual dogs’ responses are so varied it is too soon to say that there are any evolutionary or industrial implication. But probably cheaper and smarter than a robot. Also better sense of sight, smell and hearing.
Herndon Williams is affiliated with the Bayside Historical Society and the Refugio County Historical Commission. He is the author of “Texas Gulf Coast Stories”, “Eight Centuries on the Texas Frontier” and “Luju and the Curious Wolf Cub”.