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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Chats with Benji

by Mike Masterson | January 1, 2022 at 3:31 a.m.


We regularly talk to our 12-pound pound pup Benji as if he were our 10 year-old-son. Sharing our thoughts with the furry little fella just feels normal.

"Good boy, want a toy? Wanna go for a walk? Wanna go in the car? Benji wanna go see Toto, Lulu or Tooters? Wanna go outside?"

Call our one-sided conversations a matter of habit on our part, or perhaps the desire to further humanize the boy. After all, our sons and daughters are grown and gone.

Mostly, I believe it's because of our understanding (or apparent misunderstanding) that dogs supposedly have the vocabulary of a young child.

Based on my previous readings, a trained canine understands the meaning behind about 165 simple words. Yet another study says that number is closer to 90 words. Surely it's one or the other.

Alas, valued readers, where is the truth in anything these days?

But now I read in the "Your Dog" newsletter from Tufts University that Benji and other dogs "don't understand human language per se because they don't have a language center in their brains."

The story contends that when we speak to our canines, they understand only the sounds we make, rather than the actual words and their meaning to us.

"Those sounds then become cues for various behaviors," the article says. Think of the sound of a dinner bell, the beeps you hear when something has finished heating in the microwave, or even the ringtone on your phone.

All carry a nonverbal message we understand.

"We know one family that the song played during Final Jeopardy means it's also time for their evening walk," the article reads. "When the notes start, they come into the living room for their leashes, understanding they will go out very shortly."

When we make or play a sound often enough, then, a dog will learn the behavior or outcome with which it's associated. Another example is my whistle for Benji to come inside when he's been playing in the backyard.

"The easiest sounds for dogs to learn are single syllable words; chunky rather than lilting sounds that stand out: Sit, stay, down, off, come" are easiest for them to comprehend. Longer phrases that are more melodic and perhaps end with a vowel become more complex and difficult for them to pick up.

The American Kennel Club basically agrees with Tufts' assessment when it comes to "nonsense" words and phrases that, while sounding close to those they understand, will confuse dogs. "Dogs' brains process speech very quickly--on a similar time scale to humans, in fact. But when a nonsense word sounds just like an instruction word, they don't distinguish at all."

As recently demonstrated in a study from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, dogs don't access phonetic details when they're listening to human speech, the AKC reports on its website.

"Researchers used a groundbreaking non-invasive method to observe dogs' cognitive responses to three types of word: instruction words they already knew (like sit, stay, or down), nonsense words that sound similar to those known instruction words, and nonsense words that sound nothing like the known instruction words."

With this in mind, I've learned that, should I want Benji to do something, it's best I give a simple command, as in, "Benji, come" rather than offer what understandably becomes nonsense to him: "Benji, after careful consideration, I've decided it's time for you to put your toy aside and come over here even though I understand you'd rather not."

There are exceptions, according to the AKC article: "dogs who can learn hundreds of vocabulary words. These pups are currently the subjects of another study at Eötvös Loránd University, and recently made headlines after going to head-to-head in a live Genius Dog Challenge, which challenged them to learn up to 12 new words in the space of a week. All six dogs successfully learned between 10 and 12 words in one week.

"Perhaps even more interestingly, the words they learned were not command words ... but names for toys--a category of word that dogs seem to have much more trouble picking up. 'We know that dogs can learn commands or cues or sound stimuli or any stimulus for a behavior, which is basically a process of association,' Genius Dog researcher Dr. Claudia Fugazza says. 'But there was [no existing research] about learning the names of objects. So we started investigating and we found that, irrespective of the age when you start training, most dogs do not learn the name of objects.

"We trained a group of dogs very intensively for three months, we included a group of puppies around three months old and a group of adult dogs, and none of them could learn any words." A notable exception was a dog named Chaser, who was able to learn the names of more than 1,000 objects.

As a concluding note, the Tufts article says that while most dogs don't actually comprehend words as we do, they do understand human tone of voice.

If an owner likes talking soothingly or enthusiastically to the dog while stroking him, or otherwise treating him kindly, he most assuredly will get the message.

Although a dog "may not be able to learn English with Rosetta Stone, or the world's finest tutor, it knows the universal language or emotion and how it is expressed."

I suspect all people with dogs as pets pretty well understand what happens in their minds when we speak to them. Most times, we need not utter a syllable for Benji to intuit what's on our mind.

Benji's mastered the ability to tell human time instinctively. At precisely 6:45 each evening, he arises from reclining in one of our chairs (usually Jeanetta's) and begins staring expectantly toward her, then at me.

If that doesn't get us moving toward the bedroom, he begins a little dance on the chair arm as he continues staring back and forth until, we finally relent and ask if he wants to "go back."

That's a starting gun for the race to the bedroom.

Although our communication is indeed flawed and far from being what I often wish it could be, we are happy (probably like you with your fur child) to simply have the little fella with us and the joy he continuously brings to our lives.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


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