I came home last night to find that my Standard Poodle Raja had gotten into the garbage. Because I know that he will sometimes do this, I have the garbage in a solid metal can with a sturdy lid, and I put a gallon jug of water on top of the lid to make sure that the lid stays on. Last night, he had knocked over the metal can. The lid came off, and I came home to a trail of shredded paper towels, cheese wrappers, vegetables, and other table-scrap leavings, scattered throughout the kitchen and living room floors.
At first I was angry and frustrated. I was only gone for about an hour, and it was still about two hours away from Raja’s normal evening feeding time. But then I started to think about why he might have done it. The day had been cold, and because it is now April, I have not been heating the house. Raja’s metabolism was probably crying out for food. And then I rushed out of the house without feeding him. Even though I was running a short errand, he had no way of knowing when I would get back.
After I thought this through, I wished that he could have communicated with me that he was hungry before I left for my errand. I would have cheerfully fed him his food, had I realized. I just didn’t pick up on his hunger level. In the future, however, it might be possible for dogs to communicate such information to their humans in a high-tech sort of way.
An article by two Brazilian scientists in the April issue of the journal Animal Cognition points the way to the future for how dogs can communicate with people about such things as being hungry (Rossi, A. P. and C. Ades, 2008, A dog at the keyboard: using arbitrary signs to communicate requests, Animal Cognition 11: 329-338). The authors taught a dog to use a keyboard to communicate requests for food, water, going for a walk, being petted, going to a crate, getting a toy, or going to pee.
The scientists taught a mongrel dog named Sofia to press different symbols on a keyboard as a way of making requests. The symbols were very distinctive. For example, an X stood for “pet me,” a triangle stood for “give me water,” a big circle stood for “give me food,” and a small circle stood for “put me in my crate.” When Sofia pressed a symbol, a tape-recorded word was played in Portuguese corresponding to the meaning of the symbol. The dog’s behavior prior to and after pressing the symbol was monitored on videotape, where the experimenters assessed the direction of Sofia’s gaze toward objects corresponding to the symbols, or movements that reflected her intentions. Some 87 percent of the time Sofia’s gaze at an object or movement corresponded to the symbol that she pressed.
Use of symbols has been shown previously with chimps, but not with dogs. The chimp Sarah could arrange plastic symbols, and the chimp Lana could use a modified screen to formulate requests. The bonobo Kanzi can use a keyboard to communicate relatively complex information. But this is the first study that has shown that dogs have the ability to use symbols to communicate with humans.
Perhaps sometime in the near future, we all will have keyboards hooked up to our computers, and our dogs will press those keyboards, generating a computerized voice that will say something like, “Please take me outside to pee.” Usually I am pretty adept at reading my dog’s body language. However, when I get rushed and busy, as happened last night, I can certainly use some help.