One of the guest speakers this week, Rachel Mayeri, uses film to juxtapose the physical and verbal communication styles of primates with those of humans. While I found her work to be quite interesting, I do not find it entirely surprising nor striking to see how much we have in common to our closest animal relatives. After all, humans, bonobos, and chimpanzees all fall under the hominini taxonomic classification. Humans and chimpanzee are both bipedal mammals who have opposable thumbs and use tools and we even share a last common ancestor. I think this type of work is very important for better understanding animal communication and our own primal behaviors, but I am more interested in interspecies communication that spans more taxonomic distance. I think it is incredible that humans have taken dogs and not only domesticated them, but bred them for a wide variety of practical uses and bred our own emotional expressions into them.
Anyone who has had a dog can attest to the fact that they can be expressive. They have a wide range of emotions ranging from contentment, to excitement, to fear, to hostility and so on. Many feel that dogs are even capable of experiencing abstract concepts such as love. I have a friend who vehemently argues that attributing human emotions and experiences to a dog is simply the result of our obsession with anthropomorphizing non-human beings and objects. He does not feel that dogs are capable of loving their owners, but simply see the owner as a means for food and stimulation. I feel like this would be an interesting debate to have in class! I personally disagree and feel that dogs have fairly advanced levels of cognition. Even if we are responsible for dogs to have evolved these capabilities, I think that is a promising sign for what is possible with other species and breeds given enough time. Below is my personal favorite video of a dog expressing what appears to be guilt.
One article that I read explained that it turns out that dogs actually do not feel guilt, but instead respond to a change in demeanor in their owner. The dog can detect that the owner is upset so it will display signs of appeasement. However, the experiments and researched mentioned in the article that I linked all measured if a single dog is capable of feeling guilt. In the video that I linked, there are two dogs, one with the guilty expression and one without it. If both dogs knew that the owner was upset and supposedly are only capable of reacting to a change in demeanor, why was the genuinely guilty dog the only one to display the appeasement signs? Also, why do dogs display appeasement at all? Other animals generally do not detect changes in human moods and then respond to them accordingly. In fact, cats are often characterized by their indifferent personalities.
Another interesting facet of human to dog communication is the fact that dogs, but not chimpanzees, are capable of understanding what pointing means. In a study led by Katharina Kirchhofer, dogs significantly outperformed chimpanzees in an item retrieval exercise involving humans pointing at the object that they were interested in. Again, this is likely just another result of our domestication of dogs, but it makes me wonder what else we can influence them (or other animals) to understand. There is no other species as beneficial to humans as dogs are. We have trained dogs to herd flocks, to help us hunt game, to assist the blind in navigating space, to detect bombs, to rescue people trapped in snow, to pull sleds, to provide therapy, to immobilize criminals, to protect our homes, and so much more. Here is a list of 25 dogs who have saved human lives! That list includes stories ranging from dogs pulling their owners to safety from car wrecks or waking up their sleeping family as their home slowly filled with carbon monoxide.
Basically, what I am trying to get at is the fact that we can form meaningful interspecies communication given enough time. It took tens of thousands of years to domesticate dogs and we are reaping many benefits from that process. Many people currently own exotic pets such as monkeys or skunks. What will our communication and relationship with other species look like in another 30,000 years?