This week brought with it at least two stunning pieces of news. The first is that highly decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps does not swim as fast as a great white shark, even if he wears a simulated shark skin wetsuit and a ridiculous fin. The second, equally shocking revelation, is that within ten years, our dogs could be speaking to us.
According to consumer futurologist William Higham (whose job is not nearly as made up as it sounds), the market demands a product that will allow the translation of dog barking. And it turns out Northern Arizona University biology professor emeritus and author of a book called Chasing Dr. Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals, Con Slobodchikoff thinks it may be possible. And frankly, his job sounds way less made up.
A few days ago, Amazon got super excited about this and said that when there is such a product, they will be happy to ship it to you via drone and then hound you for a review. And as anyone who has ever tried to sell a book can tell you, the market lives and dies on the word of Amazon. But it got me thinking whether I really do want to know what my dog has to say.
Alexander Graham Bell, of telephone inventing fame, decided when he was a young man of twenty that he did want to know what his dog Trouve had to say. With both an elocutionist for a father and a mother who was nearly deaf, Bell became fascinated at an early age with how sound could be transformed by the shape of one’s mouth.
So he did what I’m sure any of us would have done. He taught his skye terrier to produce a sustained growl on command and then manipulated the dog’s mouth to approximate the words “How are you, Grandmama?” I imagine the interpretation took a little bit of imagination, but the discovery that it could be done led Bell in some interesting directions in his studies of speech and sound transmission.
Sometimes I do wish my dog could speak English, or at least that we could understand one another a little better. Almost two weeks ago, my family and I went out of town for the weekend and Ozzie got to spend a couple days in the kennel.
We have a great kennel and Ozzie is a very social dog, so he gets really excited when we take him there, but this time, the poor thing caught a cold. Several days after we got back, we noticed he had begun to sneeze more often than normal, and even cough a little. He was especially sleepy and didn’t seem to feel very well. We took him to the vet.
Ozzie came home with antibiotics he was not convinced he wanted to take. I wished I could explain to him the importance of the pills and that they will help him feel better, or at least prevent him from feeling even worse. Instead, I have to break them open and mix the medicine with peanut butter. And all I can do is let him lay his head on my lap so he can breathe a little easier while I scratch behind his ears.
So, I suppose we communicate just fine. Whether he understands that I’m trying to help or that the yuck he’s feeling is temporary, I don’t know. But he likes peanut butter (even when it’s laced with amoxicillin) and I think he at least knows I care.
Hopefully Trouve understood that, too. According to Bell, the dog enjoyed the attention and the treats that came along with his elocution lessons. Despite rumors to the contrary, Bell’s terrier never became a great orator. The inventor admitted he was never able to train the dog to make the sounds on his own. Of course it’s always possible that Trouve was just kind of a jerk who didn’t really care how Grandmama was doing.
And that’s the real concern I think. Because what if, after the Amazon drone delivers my dog interpretation device, I discover that I don’t care much for what my furry companion has to say. Ozzie is pretty expressive already. He tells me quite clearly when he needs to spend some private time outside and when it’s time for me to give him a treat. He can’t resist happily howling along when the boys play the piano, but seems to care not at all for the guitar and ukulele. He rests at my feet as I write, and stares at me with kind brown eyes when I read to him from my work, or pretend that I’m talking to him and not just to myself.
I suppose I’m just afraid to know what he’s really thinking at those times. What if he calls me names when I’m slower than he’d like to let him out or get him a treat? What if the lyrics he’s put to the piano tunes have no sense of poetry? What if he’s critical of my words? All things considered, I think I like our relationship the way it is. I like telling him how much I love him with a scratch behind the ears. And I like assuming that he does care very much how Grandmama is doing.