When you were growing up, did you ever wish you could talk to your dog? So many children dream of being a real-life Doctor Doolittle, interpreting their pet’s woofs and growls and being able to barkback. Although that seems like a childhood fantasy, thanks to rigorous scientific research and advanced technology that might become a reality within the next two years.
Biologist Con Slobodchikoff, an expert in animal communication and the author of “Chasing Doctor Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals,” is the founder of Zoolingua, a company that wants to help us talk to our pets. Imagine pointing your cell phone at your dog and having it translate your dog’s sounds and body language into English words and your words into woofs. Zoolingua hopes thatby developing such cutting-edge technology, it can improve the relationship we have with our dogs.
Slobodchikoff has spent three decades studying prairie dog communication and has discovered unexpected and incredible sophistication in their alarm calls. There is so much information encoded in these calls, such as size, type, and even color of predator, that Slobodchikoff has labeled it a language. What sounds like a quick chirp to a human actually says far more to a fellow prairie dog, such as, “fast-moving, yellow, rectangular-shaped coyote.”
Each type of alarm call has a very specific context, and a computer can distinguish the different types. That has allowed Slobodchikoff, along with computer scientists, to develop an algorithm that can translate the alarm calls into English words. The computer can even reverse the direction and create calls in the prairie dog language.
If a computer can translate prairie dog sounds, there’s no reason a similar program can’t be used for other animals. Slobodchikoff doesn’t think prairie dogs are the exception to the communication rule but instead expects that many animals have equally complex language-like communication of their own. And that includes dogs. Zoolingua’s goal is to collect enough information on dog body language, facial expressions, and vocalizations for the development of a canine-to-human translation algorithm.
The translator may not tell us exactly what Rover is saying. But hopefully, we can at least learn how our dog is feeling. Even if we can’t discuss philosophy, how amazing would it be to know what makes our dogs happy? It would certainly deepen our emotional bonds and empower us to better meet their needs.
However, a dog-human translator isn’t simply a fascinating window into a specific dog’s mind, it can also lead to better understanding of the species. And the better we understand dogs in general, the better stewards we can be. The company hopes that if we could better understand what our dogs are trying to tell us, we could tackle behavioral problems with more precision and perhaps save lives.
If Zoolingua cracks the code of dog communication and develops translation technology, it will add a whole new depth to our interactions with our dogs. It could lead to more harmonious relationships because we might be able to tell our dogs what we expect of them. We will know when they feel overwhelmed, confused, or anxious. And the ability to express love and joy in a shared language is irresistible. Rather than struggling to communicate, you and your dog could have a conversation. And isn’t that what we all dreamed about when we were young?