Do we miss the dogs when we go? A “talking” dog offers ideas

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Any dog ​​owner knows how difficult it is to leave their puppy for an extended period of time. We ask ourselves: do we miss them when we are gone? Do they know how long we’ve been gone? Or worse yet, do they think we’ve abandoned them?

The way humans are enthusiastically greeted by their dogs upon their return – and the way many complain when we leave – suggests that they acknowledge our absence and mourn for it. However, it’s hard to know what’s really going on in a dog’s brain – maybe it’s just missing the food we’re giving it? – partly because we can’t really communicate with them.

Well, most of them. Alexis Devine is the human parent of Bunny the “talking” dog. Bunny, a scribble, was trained to communicate using a soundboard with large buttons coded on different words. By pressing it in order, Bunny can relay basic phrases and feelings – “Sad Bunny” or “where mom”, for example. While there is debate about the extent to which she understands language, most animal behavior researchers and laypersons agree that she communicates positively and seems to understand what she says and hears in return. Devine shares videos of Bunny “talking” about her social media accounts, giving the internet a glimpse of what it might be like to have an informal conversation with Fido.

Recently, the beloved sheep has become concerned about the absence of people and animals in her life. And to answer the question about the animals we miss when they are gone: if they look like Bunny, it would seem so, they are very curious about where we go when we go.

Devine recently filmed Bunny asking her about Uni, Devine’s lost cat who has been gone for almost four months. As Devine told Salon, before Uni’s absence, Bunny didn’t “talk” much about Uni.

“It was maybe two months before her disappearance that she had finally used the ‘Uni family together’ buttons, which was a huge accomplishment as they had had such a tenuous and difficult relationship,” Devine said. “And then last week it was just heartbreaking, she hit ‘goodbye cat’ and I almost burst into tears. My little heart couldn’t take it.”

This is not the first time that Bunny seems to wonder about an animal or an animal during their absence. A few months earlier, Johnny, Devine’s partner, was at work. “Where daddy goodbye?” Bunny asked.

Devine said Johnny had been working from home all last year because of the pandemic. He is a high school teacher and is finally back to teaching in person.

“The first week he was back in school in the classroom, Bunny asked a lot about Johnny, hitting ‘Where daddy?’, ‘Where daddy goodbye?’ for a good part of the day, several days in a row, ”Devine said.

Bunny, who has 7.1 million followers on TIC Tac, is one of some 2,600 dogs and 300 cats registered in a project called They can talk. The aim of the study is to understand whether animals can communicate with humans through augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. AAC systems, such as Bunny’s giant labeled buttons that speak a single word when pressed, have been originally designed to help humans with communication disorders. Recently, they have been adapted for use in language experiments with animals.

Of course, as Salon previously reported, it’s not clear (from a scientific point of view) whether Bunny was trained to use specific buttons on his AAC device, a sound card made up of buttons with a word different voice recorded on each, or if its communications are in fact spontaneous. Through her, Bunny has appeared to report her dreams, ask existential questions, and now answer one of the most common questions dog owners ask: Do they miss them when we left?

Federico Rossano, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, said that in Bunny’s case, it’s “certainly” possible that Bunny is missing Uni and Johnny.


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“Most social animals living in small groups or packs are aware that someone has gone missing,” Rossano said. “It’s more evident when a mother watches over her cubs and goes to retrieve one that has gone too far.”

Rossano added that in a pack of wolves, one can howl when an individual has been separated from the pack. It’s a way of saying “we are here”, explained Rossano.

“Dogs tend to form close bonds with the animals they live with (humans and non-humans) that would be comparable to forming a pack (although it is not clear how much hierarchy is so important. than in wolves). ” Rossano said. “So Bunny’s behavior in these videos makes perfect sense.”

But of course, scientific studies are still pending. To date, few have tested this precise hypothesis.

Yet many studies show that dogs love their humans. On the one hand, neuroscientist Gregory Berns trained nearly 90 dogs to stay put so he could do magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on their brains. In one of his studies, he gave dogs five different scents: their own scent, a familiar human, a strange human, a familiar dog, and a strange dog. The researchers found that the region of the brain associated with positive rewards, the caudate nucleus, was more activated by the smell of their familiar human; the study was published in the journal Behavioral processes in 2014.

In 2011, two Swedish researchers Therese Rhen and Linda Keeling conducted a scientific study of 12 dogs to determine how they behaved before, during and after an owner’s absence. They found that when an owner was gone for two hours, the dogs wagged their tails and licked their faces more than when the owner was gone for 30 minutes. However, after two hours there didn’t seem to be much of a difference in the dog’s behavior, suggesting that perhaps a dog’s sense of time after two hours is getting blurry.

Rossano pointed out that although this study is often mentioned, it only involved 12 dogs. There is room for follow-up to answer bigger questions about how dogs understand whether or not the animals in their pack are gone, and how much they miss them.

“A lot of research still needs to be done to confirm this finding; there are also a set of clear confounding factors that any future study will need to resolve,” Rossano said. “Indeed, it is possible that the over-arousal after two hours is due to a desire to get food or to get out of the house or just to play with the human.”

In other words, Rossano said, “It’s not that I know you’ve been gone a long time and so I’m nicer to you. [but] on the contrary, I am (the dog) now hungry, or I need to pee or I am bored and therefore I try to dialogue with you, and if enough time has passed, these states can be achieved regardless of the dog’s consciousness of how long the human is gone. “

Indeed, it is difficult to study what goes on in the head of a dog because we cannot communicate with him. But that’s part of what the study Bunny is a part of eventually hopes to accomplish.

“If dogs could tell us how long a human has been gone, it would clearly help us understand their representation of time and how their memories are structured,” Rossano said. “This is why we are extremely interested in evaluating how training dogs to use buttons and soundboards can lead to new paradigms and discoveries regarding canine cognition.”


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