Speak! Do Dogs Talk? Understanding Dog-speak

Originally published Feb. 14, 2017

Cochise explains

When us dogs talk, most of what we say is not said vocally. Some of what we say comes through body language: the position of our head and body, how we hold our ears, the shape of our eyes, things like that. But some of us are quite expressive vocally as well, even when it comes to communicating with peoples. Many peoples don’t understand the unvocalized parts of our communications, so we have to use what they do understand to convey our desires and affections.

Buster is a funny little guy. While he was here, he didn’t bark much, but if he was lonely he’d do whale song to get our attention. When he was joyful, he’d get happy feet. He is just full of personality.

Others were not so conversational, but had their own distinctive style of verbal expression. King among these had to be Malachi. He had a unique bark that led HairyFace to poke fun at him with this video:

Do Dogs Talk

If you go on YouTube and search for “talking dog” you will find a bunch of videos showing dogs vocalizing (YouTube says 3¼ million. I didn’t look at them all but I’m pretty sure a lot of those are false hits, you know?). It seems that Siberian Huskies are particularly good at making sounds that sound like peoples words. And some people work hard at training their dogs to “talk” like them. Do their dogs talk? Well, no. I can tell you that because I’m a dog. But some peoples do agree with me.

“What’s happening between dog and owner-turned-voice-coach is fairly straightforward,” Psychologist and dog expert Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia says: “Owner hears the dog making a sound that resembles a phrase, says the phrase back to the dog, who then repeats the sound and is rewarded with a treat. Eventually the dog learns a modified version of her original sound.”

In a Letterman video “a pug says, ‘I love you’ and it’s very cute, but the pug has no idea what it means,” Coren says. “If dogs could talk, they would tell you, ‘I’m just in it for the cookies.'”

I agree with Doctor Stan; those dogs are just doing what they need to do, to get the cookie. But we can and do imitate sounds. Oscar here demonstrates that very well.

Do Dogs Communicate

But all this is not to say we do not converse. When dogs talk we don’t use people words, but we can express ourselves well.  Most of our communication is done with our bodies: how we stand, what we do with our head and eyes, what our tail is doing, these all convey meaning.  But we do speak as well.  I am quite verbal, and often have discussions with Doug and Marie about what I expect to have happen.

Blondie is far less vocal. In fact, it was over a year after she came to live at my home that she began to bark at all: she had a rough life before being rescued. But she did develop her own way of expressing herself, especially when she was happy.

So, as you can see, we can express ourselves in ways we do understand, and you can understand. Just don’t expect us to recite Shakespeare.


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