If puppies could talk, they’d tell us some home truth | John Bradshaw

John Bradshaw, an honorary research fellow at the University of Bristols vet school and author, writes that technology means we could soon be able to translate barks. We actually need better ways to understand their needs

On 1 April 2010, Google announced a breakthrough for the animal kingdom: an Android App that would allow an impressive scope of species, from guinea pig to tortoise, to speak in English. The date was, naturally, significant. Presumably the advertised animal linguistic database, against which the neurobiological acoustics of the animals utterances “wouldve been” compared, never existed. The tortoise file would have been pretty limited, in any case.

Now, the idea of talking animals has resurfaced as part of Amazons Shop The Future conception, but this time it seems more serious. Its mainly focused on puppies, though in principle it could be adapted for other domestic animals like cats maybe even tortoises. The core of the technology would be a collar that monitors precisely how the animal is moving. When it recognises from those motions that the animal wants something, the speaking part of the collar activates. For instance, when the dog scratches at the back door, the collar might say I need to go out !. The speech part of the collar can be programmed to speak in the owners interpretation of their pets voice which should incidentally provide scope for all manner of humour, both intended and unintended.

Amazon also suggests that the collar might translate barks into English, coming close to Googles tongue-in-cheek claim of converting animal speech into human vernacular, but there seems little point the dogs bark would most likely drown out the voice coming from the collar. There might also be some technical obstacles in get the collar to recognise specific elements of each puppies body-language, since dogs come in such a wide variety of shapes, sizes and energies. Imagine a collar designed for a Saint Bernard being accidentally swapped for one be available for international borders collie.

Although Amazons intents in announcing such a product may have been more headline-grabbing than thought-through, they do create the more serious issue of how well we communicate with our pets. Despite all the time pressures imposed by modern lifestyles, many of us still desire to include pets in our families. Learning to understand a new puppy takes time, but many new owneds seem woefully unprepared for this, doing no research into what dogs needs are before buying one, often over the internet. The current furor for flat-faced puppies such as pugs and French bulldogs, many of which suffer debilitate and painful genetic disorders as they age, is just one consequence of this lack of forethought.

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Its easy to fall into the trap of assuming that a dog is feeling guilty. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images

Pet owneds undoubtedly want to do the best for their animal companions, but there is still widespread misapprehension of what their pets are actually thinking and feeling, moment-to-moment. The majority of cat proprietors believe that their cats can feel pride, but biologists consider this complex emotion to be beyond the capabilities of the feline( or canine) brain. Likewise, its easy to fall into the trap of assuming that a dog is feeling guilty when we discover that its chewed up the TV remote when our backs were turned, but again, theres no scientific proof to back this up. When psychologist Alexandra Horowitz tricked owners into believing that their dogs had disobeyed them while the latter are out of the room, the dogs immediately went into full-blown guilty mode; obviously they were reacting to subtle cues in the owners body-language that informed them that a chiding was imminent.

Misreading of a dogs impressions and intentions can have serious consequences. Much attention has been given to so-called dangerous dogs, especially when one assaults an innocent passerby, but what the headlines obliterate is that many of the most serious assaults are by household dogs on the children they live with( and few of these involves pit bulls or other banned breeds ). Mothers have the responsibility to ensure that their dog is trained to behave appropriately around children, and likewise to teach their children the right way to approach a dog.

From the dogs perspective, the most useful technology might be one which recorded their impressions not when their owners were nearby, but when they werent. Every day, millions of puppies are left alone while their owners go out to work: most of them detest being left alone( and contrary to a common myth, the company of another dog is no substitute ). Some bark, some wail, some pace around; some simply lie down and appear to rest, but their skyrocketing stress hormones betray their anxiety. Merely those that distract themselves by pawing a hole in the door or interring themselves for the purposes of the sofa cushions, or lose control of their bladder or bowels, alert their owners to their distress and even this is often misinterpreted as boredom or even spite. Dogs can be trained to cope with being left alone, but few proprietors are aware that they can( indeed, should) do this. For those who accept this responsibility, technology that reassured them that they were succeeding would be a boon.

For those technophiles who desire a mess-free animal companion, realistic robot pets are probably a better solution than a living, breathing, pooping animal, however technology-equipped. Sony may have pulled the plug on its unprofitable Aibo puppy, but Paro, a robotic seal puppy, has proved extremely effective in alleviating nervousnes and depression in dementia sufferers and even at $6,000 each, theyre cheaper than a lifetimes bills for a pug.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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