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New Technologies Helping Pets Talk Back

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

As pet owners, it’s pretty obvious that our fur family can understand us. The way the dog perks up when you accidentally say the word “car” in front of him. (We have even taken to spelling the word “squirrel” just to avoid the overzealous barking that follows.) Or how the cat awakens from what appeared to be a deep, coma-like slumber when we ask, “Do you want a treat?”

While it had long been thought that animals, dogs in particular, are mostly responding to tone and body language, scientists are now recognizing that dogs have a deeper understanding of our language than we’ve given them credit for.

According to an article in The Independent, a study published in the journal Science showed that dogs’ brains process language similar to how a human brain does, with the right side processing emotional content and the left side interpreting meaning.

In an article on Animal Planet, canine intelligence expert Dr. Stanley Coren says the average dog can understand roughly 165 words, and some dogs can learn up to 200 words with special training.

New technologies could help pet owners decipher their animal's longing stare.

And yet, we as pet owners often find ourselves wondering what our dogs are trying to tell us with their barks, their whines, and their desperate eyes. You know that stare, when they seem to penetrate into the depths of your soul, begging for something, and they don’t even budge at the question, “Are you hungry?”

If not food, then what?!

In this post, we are going to take a look at some emerging research and technologies that may help us better understand what our best friends are trying to tell us.

Using AI To Decode Animal Communications

With the help of artificial intelligence (AI), scientists are working to translate animals’ speech and facial expressions so humans can better understand them.

An article in Spectrum News reports on an AI system that can decode human-like conversations between small monkeys called marmosets.

New AI software is helping to decode complex communications among marmoset monkeys.

According to the article, scientists first isolated specific “words” or meanings to a certain calls, and added them to a database. From there, researchers can string together what the monkeys are saying to each other.

An article in Science Magazine reports on an AI system developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge in the UK that can determine the level of pain a sheep is in by analyzing its facial expressions.

AI technologies being used to scan facial expressions of sheep to determine pain levels.

Decoding Prairie Dog Communications

Most surprising to us are the efforts of Con Slobodchikoff, a professor at Northern Arizona University, to decode the calls of prairie dogs after noticing some unusual patterns in their vocalizations. It turns out, these animals that are often thought of as pests have perhaps the most complex language system of any animal.

A prairie dog: "What did you say?!" (Photo by Defenders of Wildlife)

According to CBC, the animals’ calls are so distinct that they not only have different cries for different predator animals (like coyotes, domestic dogs, and humans), but they can even communicate different physical characteristics, such as size and color.

Slobodchikoff found that the animals used combinations of calls to not only warn that a human was coming but to describe that human’s clothing, according to NBC News.

From Prairie Dogs To Domesticated Dogs

As impressive as the prairie dog language is, most of us don’t have a lot of use for understanding them. But it’s Slobodchikoff’s hope that his data will contribute to the growing scientific research that aims to decode our pets’ communications.

According to NBC, Slobodchinoff’s ultimate aim is to create a device that “can be pointed at a dog to translate its woofs into English words” in order to tell us what a dog is asking for in real time.

In fact, NBC reports that a 2017 Amazon-sponsored report on future trends, accounting for Slobodchinoff’s research, predicted that we’ll have a translator for pets in the next 10 years.

The First Bark Translator Necklace

Faster than predicted, a company called Petpuls Lab developed a proprietary algorithm based on the analysis of 10,000 barks from 50 breeds of dogs in 2020. They programed the algorithm into a wearable collar to help determine a dog’s emotional state.

Petpuls dog collar translates your dog's emotions

According to Entrepreneur Magazine, Seoul National University, which tested the dog collar device, found it to have an average accuracy rate of 90% in emotional recognition.

Mashable reports that the collar, which has been on sale since October 2020, connects to your smartphone's Bluetooth and allows pet owners to view relevant information through a dedicated app.

The app also acts as a sort of fitness tracker, keeping tabs on the dog's daily activity, sleep, and diet.

At the time of publication, the collars can be purchased through the Petpuls website, where they cost $129 for a small size and $138 for a large, and come in a range of colors.

Rising Popularity of “Dog Buttons”

While the Petpuls collar assists in reading a dog’s general emotions, it still doesn’t allow for bark-to-word translation. This is where “dog buttons” come in.

Rising in popularity during the pandemic, when pet adoptions skyrocketed, dog buttons are laid out in a grid on the floor. A dog uses its paw to hit a button, which then sounds out a corresponding word.

Bunny the dog communicates using dog buttons

One of the most popular dog button brands, Fluent Pet, offers 40 different word buttons. According to their website, a 6-word starter pack costs about $70 at the time of publication.

Do they really work? Check out the following videos on Youtube to see them in action:

Benefits of Understanding Our Pets

Not only would it be interesting to understand what our pets are trying to tell us, but it could dramatically increase the quality of care we can offer them. In some cases, it could be lifesaving.

According to NBC News, an estimated 3 million unwanted cats and dogs are euthanized each year in the US. Many times, this is a result of behavioral problems that may stem from the animals being poorly understood. (A dog that seems aggressive might actually just be afraid.)

AI technology could also make things easier for farmers, allowing them to identify sick animals by detecting facial expressions indicative of pain, which would be faster and more reliable than a human recognizing an animal is sick.

If nothing else, understanding our pets on a deeper level could strengthen our bonds with them. And isn’t that the true value of pet ownership?

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