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Talking dog: Technology could lead to a device that can decode animal communications

If you ever feel a language barrier between you and your dog, you’re not alone. But even as we struggle to understand what our pets are trying to tell us, the humble black-tailed prairie dog may have the answers.

Con Slobodchikoff has spent his career studying the intricacies of communication with a prairie dog.

In an interview with Morning Edition last week, the Arizona-based biologist and author said this research leads the way to better understanding the communication systems of other animals.

“During a series of experiments, we found that prairie dogs have a very well-developed communication system and I am comfortable calling it a language,” said Slobodchikov.

“They have all the features that linguists say you have to find in an animal communication system to call it a language.”

Prairie dogs are capable of descriptive language

Through decades of research, Slobodchikov and his team have found that prairie dogs are able to describe the physical traits of predators through alarm calls. With a single chirp, a prairie dog can communicate the size, shape, speed, and even clothing of humans.

“We found that prairie dogs can not only describe the types of predators that are approaching, such as a coyote, human or hawk, but they can also describe the physical features of the predator,” said Slobodchikov.

Jennifer Verdolin, assistant professor at the University of Arizona, conducted research on prairie dogs along with Slobodchikov. Her area of ​​expertise is in animal personality, and she says that prairie dogs’ body language reveals a lot about their social networks.

Prairie dogs engage in a unique form of communication: kissing.

Researchers aren’t entirely sure what prairie dogs communicate through kissing, Verdolin says, but there are some theories.

A kiss says a lot to you, Verdolin said. “He tells you what you ate recently. You can often see young people [prairie dogs] Squeeze an adult who has food in his mouth and stick his face in his mouth. So maybe they’re trying to taste, “What am I eating here? What am I supposed to eat?”

There is a lot of information prairie dogs are likely to get from kissing, including:

  • Determine the colony to which a particular animal belongs.
  • Receive hormonal information about a potential mate.
  • Competitor strength test.
  • Social unity.
A black-tailed meadow dog watching its surroundings. Prairie dogs are highly social animals capable of complex communication. (Jennifer Verdolin, Ph.D.)

Prairie dog colonies show evidence of distinct cultures

“We also know that they have accents,” Verdolin said. “There’s a lot of geographic variation, like we find a lot in human language, and prairie dogs that live far from each other have more variation in communication style.”

The idea is that we have a device that you can point at a dog, and the device analyzes the dog’s body language and vocal cues and says, ‘I’m hungry or please let me out, I need to pee or you’re scaring me,’ or something like that.— Kon Slopodchikov, Arizona researcher on potential technology

The presence of different modes of communication suggests that there are distinct cultures among the prairie dog colonies, Verdolin says.

“Organisms that are more socially complex are more susceptible to culture,” Verdolin said. “Their communication is just one component of other parts of their behavior that may differ from place to place. And that is the very thing we think of as culture.”

Morning Edition – Sask10:35Research on communication with prairie dogs leads to better understanding of animal language

Have you ever wondered what your dog is trying to tell you when it barks or whines? We may be one step closer to deciphering our pets’ verbal body language — thanks to research into prairie dog communication. We hear from a prairie dog expert about how his research translates into animal language.

Lobodchikov’s work with black-tailed prairie dogs led him to wonder whether other animals had complex communication systems.

After researching the possibilities of other animal language systems, Slobodchikov wrote a book on the matter, Chasing Doctor Doolittlewhich was published in 2012.

“I’ve found that we have a huge number of papers in the scientific literature that have indicated or suggested that other animals do indeed have their own languages,” said Slopodchikov. “So I think the possibility is huge.”

new developments

A decade later, Slobodchikov is working on a new endeavor in animal language research: translation technology. He is the CEO of Zoolingua, a technology startup that translates animal language, both verbally and physically.

The goal of this technique is to translate the language of pets, especially dogs.

“The idea is that we have a device that you can point at a dog, and the device analyzes the dog’s body language and vocal cues and says, ‘I’m hungry or please let me go out, I need to pee or you are’ said Slobodchikov.

Verdolin believes that understanding the distinctive personalities of animals is key to understanding animal communication systems as well.

“You have to actually pay attention to who your dog is, just like you would your friend or who your child is and what their individual needs are,” Verdolin said. “And then you work within that.”