A Talking Dog that Cares About Grandmama

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.

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Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the talking dog. And the telephone. By Moffett Studio, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Skye terrier, a dog that cares about Grandmama. By Pleple2000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1851190

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.

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In a week or so, when he’s feeling better, I bet Ozzie will be saying, “Hey, lady, where’s my peanut butter?”

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.

Famous First Words: Of All the Things They Could Have Said

Today marks the 140th anniversary of a momentous occasion in the history of human communication. March 10, 1876 was the day Alexander Graham Bell, the sort-of inventor of the telephone, uttered into his famous device, “Come here! I want to see you!” The man who heard those words from the next room was Thomas A. Watson.

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This man is not a telephone inventor, but he once played the role of Alexander Graham Bell, who according to some historians, wasn’t either. Film commissioned by AT&T. (Early Office Museum.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Though the message wasn’t glamorous, it was kind of genius. If Watson responded by ducking into the room, Bell would immediately know his message had been received and understood and they would know that they’d finally invented the device that would be sure to change the world.

Watson did receive the message, or at least close enough to it. He would later report that Bell had said, “Come here! I want you!” And of course, that’s how the children’s game of Telephone was invented.

Still, the world was sufficiently impressed. The well-connected Bell obtained a patent, edging out the claims of electrical engineer Elisha Gray and other telephone-like inventors who are each worthy of mention by a more thorough or trustworthy blog than this one.

But no matter where the somewhat controversial credit for the telephone’s invention should fall, there’s little question that Bell was responsible for launching it into commercial viability, maybe in part because he handled the pressure of those first words so beautifully. Because to me, that would be the most terrifying part of getting in on the invention of a communication method with the potential to take off.

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I don’t know what words were first to be uttered over a walkie-talkie, but given that the device wound up being called a “walkie-talkie,” I’m guessing the lost words weren’t terribly creative. photo credit: mob on the radio via photopin (license)

 

I know that I couldn’t handle such pressure, because a week ago, my sons had some allowance money burning holes in their pockets. They begged me to take them to a store so they could spend some of their hard-earned cash.

What they decided to buy was a set of walkie-talkies, with a video component so they can see one another as they’re talking. It’s pretty much just a lower tech version of FaceTime, exciting for them because our family has not yet reached the era of kiddo smart phones.

They’re really pretty cool little toys and the boys have had a lot of fun with them. But that first night we brought them home, my youngest, who lacks patience for such things, disappeared to play with something else while his older brother and I figured out the new walkie-talkies. We dug them out of their many ridiculous layers of plastic packaging, installed the appropriate batteries, and followed the instructions to synch them.

Then my son ran to another room and yelled, “Say something, Mom!”

I admit that for a second or two, I panicked a little. It felt like a momentous occasion, the breaking in of brand new walkie-talkies. If I said something boring or pointless, I would definitely lose cool mom points. If, on the other hand, I took a chance and ended up saying something stupid, my words might live on in embarrassing family lore.

I briefly thought through my options:

  1. The practical approach, like Bell’s first telephone call to Watson: “Come Here! I want to see you!” (perhaps not so practical when I can already see an image of him in the device).
  2. The highfalutin approach, like Samuel Morse communicating from DC to Baltimore, for the first time with the telegraph: “What hath God wrought?” (sure to garner epic mockery in the annals of family history)
  3. The seasonal approach, like that of Neil Papworth  to the phone of Richard Jarvis, demonstrating the world’s first text message: “Merry Christmas” (hardly appropriate at the beginning of March)
  4. The careless approach, like Ray Tomlinson’s 1971 note to himself in the first successful e-mail: “most likely…‘QWERTYIOP’ or something similar.” (Perhaps it will take an FBI investigation to uncover what happened to the “U”)
  5. The taunting approach, like Motorola’s Martin Cooper to his AT&T rival Joel Engel in the first successful cell phone call: “I’m ringing you just to see if my call sounds good at your end.” (That’s just not very sportsman like.)

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    But seriously, it wouldn’t hurt the kid to clean his room.

In the end I went with the mom approach: “Time to clean your room!” It turned out, the darn audio didn’t work. But the video worked just fine, because I clearly saw my son stick his tongue out at me before he rushed into the room and grabbed the walkie-talkie from my hand to take it to his brother.

It occurred to me that perhaps what Bell meant to say to his assistant was, “Come here! I want you…to clean up this dreadful experiment!” But Watson, being no dummy, hurried into the room with a big smile on his face. And history was made. Good thing, too, because if not, 140 years later, we might all still be communicating by terribly pretentious telegram.