What I Learned From the World's 'Most Intelligent' Dog Breed

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

We humans are an arrogant species. For eons, we have assumed that we are the only creatures with sophisticated language abilities. Furthermore, many of us believe that short of the fictional magic of Dr. Doolittle, our communication with other animals is limited to interpreting behavior. Real, meaningful, two-way interspecies communication has always been an unattainable dream of humankind.

However, Dr. Denise Herzing has spent decades attempting to dispel these notions with her study of wild dolphin communication, with fascinating results. In her TED talk, "Could we speak the language of dolphins?" Dr. Herzing describes her latest work attempting to bridge the communication gap between humans and dolphins with technology. Remarkably, she has shown that it is possible for humans to make up novel "dolphin words" using dolphin-generated sounds in new combinations, and for dolphins to learn and react to those words.

With new understanding, dolphins, dogs, and other species may someday soon be able to clearly communicate to humans, and we may be able to communicate clearly back, in common languages that we create together. -- Melody Moore Jackson

Dolphins aren't the only species with talent in communication. In my 30+ years training dogs for obedience, assistance work, and agility, I have been astounded by what canines can comprehend. In "The Intelligence of Dogs," famed psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren ranks the Border Collie as the most intelligent dog breed, at least by human definitions. Border Collies are particularly good with human language; a 2011 study by Pilley and Reid at Wofford College demonstrated that a Border Collie could learn more than 1,000 names for different toys. The dog also learned categories, and could infer names of new toys by exclusion--associating an unfamiliar word with a new toy amidst familiar objects. This is one of the main ways that young humans learn language, and it rocks the previous assumptions about the linguistic comprehension abilities of animals.

I can attest to this, as I am very fortunate to be owned by one brilliant Border Collie named Sky. In addition to clearly understanding most of what I say to him, even without intentional training ("Where's your little brother?" elicits a very directed search for my young Papillon Lazer), Sky has made attempts to talk in what he undoubtedly considers to be human language. The first time, I was sitting at my desk intensely working on a paper due that afternoon. Sky, who had been keeping me company in my office all day, approached me, intently staring at my face. I thought he just wanted a scritch, and started to oblige, when he clearly said, "ma-ree-ma-roo-ma-RO-RO". I laughed at his cuteness, surprised because he had never vocalized like that before. He continued to stare at me intently, and very deliberately said the same phrase louder. "MA-REE-MA-ROO-MA-RO-RO." Dumbfounded, I continued to stroke his head, and then found out the hard way that I had been sitting at my desk for six straight hours and he needed to go OUT. NOW.

My interpretation of this event is completely unscientific, of course, although the consequences of my initial confusion and inaction were quite clear. However, over the five years Sky and I have lived together, I have heard that exact phrase a number of times, with the same intent. Sky has now trained me to respond appropriately. He will also plop his head in my lap and issue an "oomph" sound, which I now know means that the baby Papillon has done something annoying, usually stealing the toy that Sky was chewing on. It is a request for intervention, as he has gotten in trouble for correcting the puppy himself (the puppy definitely deserves correction; but Sky is six times the size of Lazer, and I don't want Lazer to unwittingly commit Suicide By Border Collie). Sky has become quite adept at communicating his needs to me, creating his own "language" simple enough for even a human to understand.

Sky is also our main test pilot for the FIDO (Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations) project at Georgia Tech. Funded by the National Science Foundation, with my colleagues Thad Starner, Clint Zeagler, and a host of talented students, we are exploring wearable interaction technology for working dogs. A guide dog can pull a tab on his harness that sends an auditory message to his handler, "we need to go around something." A hearing dog can bite a sensor on his service dog vest that sends the message "tornado siren!" to his handler's head-mounted display. A search-and-rescue dog can tug a device hanging on his collar to let his handler know that he has found the person he was looking for, geo-locating via a GPS and sending a map to the medical team standing by. There are so many more useful and possibly even life-saving applications for working dogs who can share information with their handlers. Sky is a critical member of our research team, and he loves his job.

With new understanding, dolphins, dogs, and other species may someday soon be able to clearly communicate to humans, and we may be able to communicate clearly back, in common languages that we create together. Technology will catalyze and facilitate this exchange. Now, if you'll excuse me, Sky just said, "MA-REE-MA-ROO-MA-RO-RO," and we all know what that means.

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