One of the characteristics for the human race is hubris. Evidence of this is that we believe ourselves to be the only species on earth capable of speaking, so why should we talk to animals?
An example of how wrong we are is if we take a look at the Prairie Dogs. It has been shown in several studies, especially by Professor Con Slobodchikoff who has been studying these animals for more than 30 years, that these animals really do speak.
In 2009 Professor Slobodchikoff, together with Bianca Perla and Jennifer Verdolin, published a book on the Prairie Dogs communication and community life. The book describes the entire society of these animals and the different communities into which it is divided.
But the most interesting for this article is the books fourth chapter. It describes the intraspecific communication and goes into detail about the vocalization and complexity of alarm signals. The alarm signals describes the type of predator and its size, if it is terrestrial or airborne, with what speed and from which direction it is approaching and even its colour. It is mentioned, as an anecdote, that when the team of human researchers had difficulties in differentiating between a German Shepherd and a Coyote, the Prairie Dogs made the distinction immediately and communicated the different kind of threat to the rest of the community.
They do talk
The authors present arguments that due to its complexity we must consider the vocal communication system of the Prairie Dogs a language. It is a system that contains nouns (Coyote), adjectives (grey), verbs (runs closer) and even adverbs (fast, left). They can also accentuate even more by adding olfactory and visual cues.
Another interesting observation is that it was possible to demonstrate that between the different species there are different languages and within the languages you can see various dialects in geographically separated communities.
Moscow Metro Dogs
With this we move over to an example of interspecific communication between stray dogs and humans in Moscow. In Moscow there is a small group of very famous stray dogs that are using the subway to commute. On YouTube there are tons of videos about these dogs and you can even read about them on Wikipedia. Dogs travel daily to move from their resting area to the food-finding area.
Biologist Andrey Poyarkov has studied stray dogs in Moscow for thirty years and considers dogs using the subway an intellectual elite. Dogs also know how to use traffic lights to know when to cross the street. They also know from whom they can order food and read people’s body language extremely well and even judge them by their clothing.
They do understand
Andrei Neuronov, another animal behaviour expert, has observed that dogs have learned to recognize station names, just as dogs can recognize short commands and their own names. But this ability is used for different purposes by different groups of subway dogs.
Researchers, including scientific writer Eugene Linden, say that the dog’s use of the transit system is evidence that the Canis familiaris possesses what can be called flexible open-ended reasoning and conscious thought.
According to Neuronov, there are three types of subway dogs: the ones that live on the subway but don’t travel, dogs that use the subway to travel short distances instead of walking, and entrepreneuring dogs that spend the day commuting. This last type of dog makes long trips, working the crowd to receive food, emotional contact and interaction.
They break the rules
Dogs are not allowed to use on the subway, although humans sometimes allow them to enter they generally enter through the doors on their own initiative. In doing so, they question, albeit unconsciously, the fact that the subway is reserved for humans – they take the right to use the subway. With their behaviour, they also influence prevailing stereotypes and demonstrate that stray dogs can be intelligent, smart and skilled. Dogs behave with good manners, they stay calm, or lie under the benches. Photos and videos of them are put online, so every day more and more people are beginning to look at stray dogs and dogs in general in a new way.
Through their behaviour the dogs question the boundary between man and animal, since they occupy a place within a specific human space. Their actions can be compared to situations where we violate the rules and therefore criticize the privileges of a particular system or group. On a small scale, the condition of other stray dogs and how they see themselves is affected. This in turn has an influence on public opinion and the legislation related to the dogs. In Moscow, stray dogs affect, through their behaviour, the vision that people have of them.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger demonstrated that language provides knowledge of the world around us and shapes that world. Or as he said in a conference – Language speaks. Language gives us knowledge of how others think and the opportunity to show what we think. In addition there are two clear benefits of talking to animals: it teaches us to understand them better and it helps create new and better interspecific relationships.
We have to talk to them
To get to know what animals want, it is not enough to just study them. We need to start talking to them. Eva Meijer (Dutch artist, writer, philosopher, singer and songwriter) says, in her beautiful 2019 book When Animals Speak: Toward an Interspecies Democracy, that talking to animals requires a radical change in our thinking about the hierarchies between humans and animals. But as humans begin to see animals differently this can also happen in the dialogue itself. In addition, a radical change is needed in our vision of language.
Have a dialogue
In our day to day life with our dogs we must find more space for dialogue and also, language helps us live with them in a new way. Dogs keep showing us that their language is much broader and richer than we thought. Likewise, there are infinite possibilities to express yourself meaningfully not only with human words. Instead of dismissing these forms of expression as inferior, we can learn from them. For canine communication to be a language, dogs don’t need to learn anything. However it is imperative for us to change our view on them..
Dogs spoke from the very start.