In my recent book, Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the
Language of Animals (http://tiny.cc/sam5nw), I show that a number of animal
species either have language or have language-like abilities.
Do dogs fall into the category of animals with language?
As we find out more and more about the behavior of dogs, we
find that they have elaborate body-language cues. Some of the large-scale cues
have been known for a long time. For example, the position of the tail, the
ears, the head, and the body torso have been known for a long time as signals
that dogs give to other dogs.
New research shows that within those large-scale cues, there
are more subtle ones, such as dogs laughing, or wagging their tails differently
to show their enjoyment.
We all know that dogs bark, but for a long time people
thought that the barking lacked any meaning. Now research is showing that dogs
give different barks in different contexts, and that other dogs can understand
the contexts from the barks.
Interestingly, we have a hard time understanding the meaning
of the barks, while some dogs seem to have no trouble understanding our words.
The border collie Chaser knows upwards of 1,000 words in English, and the
border collie Rico knows upward of 200 words in German.
And then there are the odor cues in anal glands and other
sources of odor. We have a hard time understanding the meaning encoded in
odors, but it is likely that anal glands can signal a considerable amount of
information to other dogs.
So the bottom line is, it is likely that dogs have a
language, just like the prairie dogs, dolphins, chickadees, honeybees, and ants
that I talk about in Chasing Doctor Dolittle have their own forms of language.