Dr. Con Slobodchikoff is professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University and Director of the Animal Language Institute.


  • Con Slobodchikoff Director of the Animal Language Institute and professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University.

Read An Excerpt

From “Chasing Doctor Dolittle” by Con Slobodchikoff, Ph.D. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Dr. Con Slobodchikoff is a scientist who dares to believe he can talk to animals and animals can talk to us. He challenges conventional views of animals and wants no less than a revolution in thinking about our relationship with them.

  • 11:07:17

    MS. DIANE REHMCon Slobodchikoff is the author of a new book titled "Chasing Doctor Dolittle." He joins me in the studio to talk about his conversations with prairie dogs.

  • 11:07:30

    MS. DIANE REHMI'm sure you'll want to be part of the program this morning. Give us a call 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir, it's good to have you here.

  • 11:07:49

    DR. CON SLOBODCHIKOFFGood morning, Diane, thank you for having me on your show.

  • 11:07:53

    REHMIt's a pleasure. You know, I think many of us who live with animals, like dogs and cats, believe that when we talk to them, they can understand what we say. But the idea of thinking or assuming a creature can talk back to us is something sort of out of science fiction. How did you get started in your own study?

  • 11:08:29

    SLOBODCHIKOFFWell, in my study, I have been spending a lot of time working with prairie dogs. I've spent about 25 years decoding the language of prairie dogs.

  • 11:08:41

    REHMWhy prairie dogs?

  • 11:08:43

    SLOBODCHIKOFFIt turned out to be sort of fortuitous with prairie dogs because I first started working with them being interested in their social system and I also knew that they were able to communicate, to some extent. They had alarm calls and at the time that I started, people knew that other ground squirrels had two types of alarm calls.

  • 11:09:08

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThey had an alarm call for terrestrial predators, such as coyotes, and they had another alarm call for aerial predators, such as hawks and eagles. And I thought it would really be interesting to see if prairie dogs had two types of alarm calls.

  • 11:09:24

    SLOBODCHIKOFFSo I recorded the alarm calls of the prairie dogs to terrestrial predators and to aerial predators and found that, indeed, they do have two types of alarm calls, but the situation was much more complicated than that. And so I started thinking, why is this situation more complicated? And had the idea, what if they actually had calls for individual predators, such as -- or individual species, I should say, such as coyotes, such as dogs...

  • 11:09:59


  • 11:09:59

    SLOBODCHIKOFF...such as humans. And so I set up experiments testing for that by having humans walk out into the prairie dog colonies, having dogs run out, opportunistically recording when coyotes would come out and found that, sure enough, they did actually have separate calls for the individual species.

  • 11:10:24

    REHMBut now, every scientist I'm sure would immediately say that by your very presence you have changed the situation in which you find that prairie dog.

  • 11:10:43

    SLOBODCHIKOFFWell, what we do in our experiments is we construct a blind so this is an elaborate structure usually which is screened off from the prairie dogs and we get to the field situation well before the prairie dogs come above ground around sunrise. So we get there before sunrise and we get set up and then we wait until the prairie dogs go below ground, which is usually sometime a little bit before sunset when we leave. So we're not really intruding upon the prairie dogs at that point.

  • 11:11:22

    REHMAnd this first sound that we have consists of a prairie dog doing what?

  • 11:11:34

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThis is a sound of a prairie dog giving an alarm call to a dog, specifically a golden retriever.

  • 11:11:50

    REHMAll right, that sounds like the chirping of a prairie dog.

  • 11:11:56

    SLOBODCHIKOFFIt is and, in fact, it sounds more like the chirping of a bird than the bark of a prairie dog.

  • 11:12:05

    REHMOkay. And this chirp was in reaction to a, you said, a golden retriever?

  • 11:12:12

    SLOBODCHIKOFFCorrect, this is in response to a golden retriever.

  • 11:12:15

    REHMAll right. And I gather there were some 18 chirps on that recording. The second is in reaction to a coyote. Were you watching this happen and where was the recording device?

  • 11:12:38

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThe recording device was inside the blind so we have a directional microphone that we poke through a small hole in the blind and we watch through other small holes in the blind. And so we could see the coyote approaching and we recorded the alarm calls in response to the coyote.

  • 11:12:57

    REHMLet's hear it.

  • 11:13:05

    REHMClearly, it's clearly faster...

  • 11:13:07


  • 11:13:08

    REHM...than the first.

  • 11:13:12

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThe speed is related to the speed of travel of the predator. So when a predator is moving slowing, the chirps are relatively slow. So it goes chirp, chirp, chirp. When the predator speeds up, the chirps go chirp, chirp, chirp in direct relation to the speed of the predator. So essentially, this is a verb-like component of the calls giving information about how fast the predator is moving.

  • 11:13:39

    REHMAnd to whom is the prairie dog communicating?

  • 11:13:44

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThe prairie dog is communicating to other prairie dogs. So prairie dogs live in social situations called towns and there might be anywhere from 50 to 100 prairie dogs in a town. Now, sadly, prairie dogs are rapidly disappearing from our world.

  • 11:14:06

    SLOBODCHIKOFFAt the moment, prairie dogs are down to about 1 to 2 percent of what they were 100 years ago.

  • 11:14:09

    REHMWhy is that?

  • 11:14:12

    SLOBODCHIKOFFIt's a combination of factors, partly because of human influence. Prairie dog towns are in flat places, which make wonderful parking lots and make wonderful places to build buildings. Also, humans introduced the disease, Bubonic Plague into North America, probably from China in about 1900, and Bubonic Plague has been spreading east through wild animal populations.

  • 11:14:38

    SLOBODCHIKOFFBut unfortunately, prairie dogs are incredibly sensitive to Bubonic Plague and when plague comes into their town, about 98 percent to 100 percent of all the prairie dogs die from the plague.

  • 11:14:52

    REHMAll right. The third clip we have is alerting that there is a hawk on the ground or flying in.

  • 11:15:02

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThe hawk is flying, specifically the hawk is diving towards the prairie dogs.

  • 11:15:11

    REHMNow that's a slightly different kind of sound, but it's very subtle.

  • 11:15:19

    SLOBODCHIKOFFIt's very subtle, yes, but the pitch is different and perhaps those people who have excellent pitch control and excellent pitch perception can hear the pitch differences between dog, coyote and hawk.

  • 11:15:36

    REHMLet's hear the coyote once more, if we can.

  • 11:15:49

    REHMThat's that very rapid chirp. Now, let's hear the reaction to the approaching hawk.

  • 11:16:04

    SLOBODCHIKOFFAnd perhaps your listeners can hear the difference between them. We analyzed this on a computer screen. We create what are called sonograms, which are pictorial representations of the time and frequency elements, so each sonogram looks like kind of a series of stacked chevrons, like sergeant's stripes.

  • 11:16:30

    SLOBODCHIKOFFSo the sound frequencies go up to a peak and then come down. And so we analyze this by measuring different time and frequency elements, putting this into a statistical program. And the statistical program then tells us, for example, is coyote different from hawk or is coyote different from dog?

  • 11:16:50

    REHMAnd we have one more and that is a reaction to an approaching human.

  • 11:17:03

    REHMNow explain how different that looks on a sonogram screen.

  • 11:17:10

    SLOBODCHIKOFFOn a sonogram screen, if you look at a human, the frequencies go up fairly sharply to a peak and then come down with kind of a bow-shaped drop. Whereas if you compare that with a dog, the frequencies go up fairly sharply and then come down and there's kind of a little step or plateau in the frequencies and then they drop down.

  • 11:17:41

    SLOBODCHIKOFFSo visually, if you see the two on a screen, you can actually tell which is the dog and which is the human. But, of course, we do the statistical analysis.

  • 11:17:52

    REHMTo our human ear, there are some variations, but not huge.

  • 11:17:59

    SLOBODCHIKOFFNot huge, but usually I can take people out to a prairie dog colony and within about half a day or so they can tell the differences between the human and coyote and dog.

  • 11:18:14

    REHMWhy do you use the word talk when others would say simply a signal?

  • 11:18:23

    SLOBODCHIKOFFI use the word because I think that animals actually use language instead of just communicating.

  • 11:18:33

    REHMAnd we're talking about a new book. It's titled "Chasing Doctor Dolittle." The author is Con Slobodchikoff. He is at Northern Arizona University.

  • 11:20:06

    REHMAnd welcome back. I'm talking this morning with Con Slobodchikoff. He is a professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He does believe that he can talk to animals and they can talk to us. He sees this process evolving. He's studied prairie dogs. He's also looked at, of course, the dolphins that we've all heard about. But he thinks many, many species have language. And that someday we, as humans, who are also animals, will begin to appreciate and, perhaps, totally understand what is being said.

  • 11:21:13

    REHMHere's a wonderful email from Christian in Cyprus, Texas who says, "I have a three-year-old male cat, who is incredible. Since he was fairly young, he would come in the house and call out mom. I believe he learned to mimic my children calling me. He still meows a very loud mom when he's looking for me. It makes me smile every time and ends in the two of us having a conversation." What about cats? Have you looked at cats?

  • 11:21:57

    SLOBODCHIKOFFI personally have not looked at cats. But we know from what is available in the published literature that cats have, at least, a 125 different vocalizations. So it doesn't surprise me that cats can learn to say mom, for example. But cats have different vocalizations for when they see a bird, for example. They have different vocalizations for when they see another cat. They have different vocalizations when they see a dog. So there's a whole range of vocalizations.

  • 11:22:31

    REHMHow detailed do you believe the language of prairie dogs actually is?

  • 11:22:38

    SLOBODCHIKOFFAt this point, prairie dog language is the most sophisticated animal language that has been decoded so far. And I put in the qualification so far because I think that once we have the paradigm that animals are capable of language, which still among the scientific community is nonexistent. But once we have that paradigm and people start looking at other languages in terms of what happens in different contexts, the way that we've done with prairie dogs.

  • 11:23:08

    SLOBODCHIKOFFI think that people will be finding a lot more evidence, on a scientific level, that a lot of animals have very sophisticated animal languages. And in my book I do present a lot of bits and pieces of evidence of that already. So I think that we already have amassed a lot of evidence showing that many animals do have language, but it still needs more study.

  • 11:23:31

    REHMTell me about the Mexican free-tailed bats.

  • 11:23:38

    SLOBODCHIKOFFMexican free-tailed bats can sing songs, for example. They can also find their young in situations where many, many different young are packed into a small cave. And the young have individual calls that they give to their mothers. And their mothers have individual calls that they give to their young. And so they can communicate that way finding each other.

  • 11:24:10

    REHMHave they -- those songs been recorded?

  • 11:24:14

    SLOBODCHIKOFFI'm sure that some of the songs have been recorded at this point.

  • 11:24:20

    REHMWhat about something as simple as a community of robins?

  • 11:24:29

    SLOBODCHIKOFFWe really don't know that much about birdsong yet, surprisingly enough. And part of the reason is that people have been concentrating on some aspects of birdsong where the song is more stereotyped. In other words, it's pretty much the same like a bird sings to attract a mate and the song sounds very similar from one particular singing to another.

  • 11:24:57

    SLOBODCHIKOFFBut there are also other aspects of birdsong that people have not looked at very much. For example, many birds have what is known as soft song where they spend a lot of time communicating with each other in a very soft voice. So when you have a group of robins or when you have a group of starlings, for example, together you can hear them chirping to each other all the time. And we don't know what that means.

  • 11:25:26


  • 11:25:27

    SLOBODCHIKOFFPart of the problem is that in decoding animal languages, we need a Rosetta Stone. We need something that allows us to decode the language. And this is what I had with prairie dogs in that they give alarm calls to predators. We can see the predators. We can videotape the predator behavior. We can videotape the escape responses of the prairie dogs.

  • 11:25:50

    SLOBODCHIKOFFWe can record the alarm calls. And then we can play back the alarm calls when no predator is there and videotape the escape responses and see if they're exactly the same as when the predator is there. If they are we know that they've understood the message from just the alarm call being played back. And if the alarm calls are different well, we know that the message was meaningless.

  • 11:26:14


  • 11:26:14

    SLOBODCHIKOFFAnd, of course, we have been able to show in the published literature that the alarm calls, indeed, contain these messages.

  • 11:26:23

    REHMHow widespread is the reception to this idea that animals across the spectrum have language within the scientific community?

  • 11:26:39

    SLOBODCHIKOFFI would say that, at this point, there's an ever widening circle of scientists who are willing to give animals the benefit of the doubt. We now know that animals have emotions. We now know that animals experience grief. We know that animals experience pleasure.

  • 11:26:54

    REHMGive me examples.

  • 11:26:56

    SLOBODCHIKOFFExamples -- animals will grieve, for example, when they lose another animal that is close to them. I can give you a personal example. I had a standard poodle who lived with another standard poodle. And they were best friends. And one of the standard poodles died of old age. And the other poodle grieved for about six months. He was clearly dejected. His tail was down. He did not smile. Dogs can smile. And he did not smile. His head was always down.

  • 11:27:36

    REHMWhat about food?

  • 11:27:37

    SLOBODCHIKOFFHe hardly ate anything. He showed all of the symptoms that we show when we lose somebody that's close to us. And so people are finding this out now and they're publishing books about this. For example, Jeffrey Masson published a book called, "When Elephants Weep." Jonathan Balcombe talked about the pleasurable kingdom and animals experiencing pleasure. Mark Bekhoff talked wild justice about how animals have a sense of fairness, a sense of justice.

  • 11:28:10

    SLOBODCHIKOFFAnd there's a wonderful experiment that was just reported about how dogs were in a situation where they were asked -- two dogs were asked to do the same task. But one dog got rewarded twice as much as the other dog. And after a while, the dog that didn't get enough food or didn't get as much food quite working. Said why should I work when I'm not getting a fair break.

  • 11:28:38

    REHMOver how long a period of time did that occur?

  • 11:28:42

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThis was over a period of several weeks...

  • 11:28:44


  • 11:28:46

    SLOBODCHIKOFF...in an experiment.

  • 11:28:47

    REHMAnd the one dog just finally said I'm out of here guys.

  • 11:28:50

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThat's enough. I'm out of here. That's all.

  • 11:28:51

    REHMJust not doing it anymore. In your book, you talk about lizards. Tell me about your experience with lizards.

  • 11:29:04

    SLOBODCHIKOFFLizards have been reported to have a very sophisticated grammar that they use to communicate with other lizards about their desire to mate and also about their desire to fight each other. And this grammar involves having head bobs where one individual will bob its head up and down several times in a particular pattern. It also involves arching the back, flattening the body, lifting up different legs.

  • 11:29:35

    SLOBODCHIKOFFSo when I was writing this book, I was sitting in my study and I had several lizards out on the deck. And I would periodically watch the lizards. And periodically I would go out when I was tired of writing. And I would go out and I would bob my head or bend down and look I was flattening my back. And the lizards would respond. They would bob their heads. They would arch their back and so on. So...

  • 11:30:06

    REHMBut isn't that simply in the realm of physical signal rather than language?

  • 11:30:15

    SLOBODCHIKOFFWell, here's the distinction actually. Simple communication is just the production and reception of signals. So a radio does simple communication. There's no thinking involved. Language, on the other hand, has many different components. One of the components is it has flexibility. So the animal can decide what kind of signal to send in a particular situation. It's not a fixed sort of thing. It's not you push this button you get this output. You push that button you get a different output. The animal can decide.

  • 11:30:50

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThe animal also can intend to send the signal. So there's intentionality. There's also novelty. The animal can make up new signals or combine signals in different ways that we haven't seen before. So there are these kinds of different elements. There's also structure in the sense of there's usually a grammar associated with that. We have these kinds of elements that go into language that we don't have in a simple communication system. So in a sense language is a subset of communication. But most scientists have not been willing to give animals the benefit of the doubt and say that animals have language. They are only willing to say that animals can communicate.

  • 11:31:37

    REHMSo most scientists are using communication as being oral communication.

  • 11:31:52

    SLOBODCHIKOFFMostly, yes.

  • 11:31:53

    REHMAnd what you're saying is that communication, as such, is far, far broader than that. And allows animals to communicate with us, if we can only understand their intent.

  • 11:32:14

    SLOBODCHIKOFFCorrect. And I would say that many animals within that larger frame of communication actually have language using those features that I mentioned. And so if we are able to decode that language then we might, perhaps, be able to communicate with them on a level that they can understand. Now with my lizards I didn't know what I was doing. And so I was just randomly bobbing my head and the lizard would bob its head for a couple of times and then give up in disgust, apparently, and go off and look for bugs someplace.

  • 11:32:48

    REHM"Chasing Dr. Dolittle," is the title of the book by Con Slobodchikoff, "Learning the Language of Animals." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have a number of callers. Going to open the phones 800-433-8850. To Devish is Baton Rouge, La. good morning to you.

  • 11:33:19

    DEVISHGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:33:21


  • 11:33:22

    DEVISHMy question is the doctor said that he can talk to animals. Yeah, I'm a big supporter of animal rights. So if he can talk to them, that makes them intelligent beings, right. And what's his stand on the ethical issues of killing animals, hunting them, animal face paint, that kind of stuff.

  • 11:33:44

    SLOBODCHIKOFFLet me just clarify one issue. I can't talk to animals. I can describe what animals are talking about. But I'm not Dr. Dolittle who actually could talk to animals. So to get to your other issue, though, I think that one of the things that -- talking about language or describing language or saying that animals have language does is it decreases the gulf between us and other animals showing that there's essentially a continuum between us and other animals. Because people have postulated that somehow humans were the only ones with language. And all other animals were not capable of that.

  • 11:34:33

    SLOBODCHIKOFFAnd by showing that animals do have language, it makes them closer to us. And, as such, I think that people will begin to treat animals much better than they have in the past. Because in the past people have thought of animals as mere robots that function on programs of instinct and are disposable like test tubes. But if, indeed, they have language, they're able to think, they're able to describe the world around them then that puts us in a completely different position on how we view animals.

  • 11:35:08

    REHMAll right. To Gordon in Hoytsville, Utah. Hi there.

  • 11:35:14

    GORDONHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:35:16


  • 11:35:16

    GORDONI love the show.

  • 11:35:17


  • 11:35:18

    GORDONI just have a -- you were talking earlier about the animals grieving for each other. And I had an anecdote or story that I thought might be interesting to you. We used to work with oxen and we had two old steers. And, of course, an ox is just any bovine steer or that's been trained to work. And we had two old steers, Buck and Ball were their names. And they'd developed some, you know, medical issues and we had to put them down.

  • 11:35:54

    GORDONWe had two younger steers coming up that were in training. And the grave for the two older steers was dug just across the fence from the pasture that the younger ones were staying in. And when we put the two steers down, one of the younger steers he became quite aggressive trying to protect the, you know, the carcasses. And then he stood and stared at the graves for two weeks after the two older steers were buried.

  • 11:36:31


  • 11:36:31

    GORDONAnd I was just amazed at the, you know, the connection between the two. And ever since then, when I worked with cattle, I've had a lot more, I guess you'd say, compassion and also, belief that they're much more intelligent than we, at first, think. So...

  • 11:36:51

    SLOBODCHIKOFFWell, we know that cows, for example, have friends that they like to hang out with. And that's been very well documented. So I think that what you describe is something that most animals, or at least many animals, are capable of going through. For example, I read a wonderful story about a dog who was very attached to his master. And the master died. And the person was buried in a cemetery. And for years the dog would come and sit at the grave of the person.

  • 11:37:27

    REHM"Chasing Dr. Dolittle." That's the title of Con Slobodchikoff's now book. If you'd like to join us, we'll be here after a short break.

  • 11:40:06

    REHMAnd welcome back. Just before the break, we heard from our listener in Utah about an oxen who grieved at the grave of two fallen friends, as we shall call them. Which may indicate, Con, that the ox had a brain, which we know that the creature has. But take us further. Does that indicate that there is a mind at work within that brain?

  • 11:40:52

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThe short answer is we don't know at this point, scientifically. But, on the other hand, if you believe in evolutionary continuity, you can extend that we have a mind. We know that apes have a mind. Why not extend this to other animals, as well. And give them the benefit of the doubt. But on a scientific level we have to be cleaver enough to design experiments to find out whether animals have a mind. And this is not so easy. But we have to keep in mind that just because we can't measure something doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.

  • 11:41:26

    REHMSo if you go back evolutionarily to those who were the precursors of who we are today, one wonders about the kinds of language that they used to communicate, which seemed to have been more symbolic than oral.

  • 11:42:00

    SLOBODCHIKOFFWell, we don't really know, actually, whether it was symbolic or whether it was oral. We don't know, in human terms, when we actually started to speak. But what we do know is that there is evolutionary continuity in being able to speak with auditory signals. Being able to speak with visual signals. And this is one of the things that I mentioned in my book which I call the discord system theory. Where I mention that we have been looking at language completely in the wrong direction because we assume that language is just simply the signals that are produced.

  • 11:42:47

    SLOBODCHIKOFFBut if you think about the way that we are related to, say, other vertebrates, the fish, the mammals, the birds, the reptiles and so on. We all have a spine. We all have a circulatory system. We all have a nervous system. We all have a brain. And so if you extend all of that then you realize that language production or sound production or visual production is all part of a system where, for example, you have a signal coming into receptors.

  • 11:43:30

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThe receptors send this along the nervous system to the brain. The brain makes a decision about what to do. And then sends signals along the nervous system to sound production organs or to visual production organs and so on. And we have that. And other animals have that, too. And so what I'm arguing with the discord system theory is that there is evolutionary continuity in all of these morphological structures and all of these physiological structures that we have and that other animals have, as well.

  • 11:44:06

    REHMAll right. To Concord, N.H. hi, Shannon, you're on the air.

  • 11:44:11

    SHANNONHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:44:13


  • 11:44:14

    SHANNONOne of the things I want to say is that as a canine behaviorist since I was probably about ten I started observing them is that it is possible to talk to animals every day in your everyday life, which is what I do. But the majority of that speaking is silent. It has nothing to do with vocalization. And oftentimes when we try to put our human psychology onto animals, specifically dogs, we end up miscommunicating with them. And it always ends up worse for the animal.

  • 11:44:45

    SHANNONAnd one of the things I wanted to say is that you guys have actually done this during the show suggesting that, you know, the animal that sits by his owner's grave is actually mourning the death of his owner. There's a chance that that's true. But also what's going on is the dog has lost his pack and his leader. And because dogs are nose, eye, ears he's going to know that the last place his owner was was the scent of his grave. So he's going to sit there by the last place that his owner was until the scent either dissipates or he finds something else to do because that's where his pack was last. And as a dog, who is very pack oriented, he's going to sit there by that grave.

  • 11:45:21

    SLOBODCHIKOFFBut think of what's involved in all of that. You have to have the concept of a pack. You have to have the concept of a leader of the pack. You have to have a concept of place. All of which suggests that the dog actually has a mind.

  • 11:45:39

    SHANNONAnd they do have vocalizations that change with the situation. But when you're putting human feelings and human thoughts into an animal who just might not have them -- and I see it every day when I work with my clients. They can't understand why when they try to calm their scared dog why it just makes it worse. Well, to us, being soothed during a scary, you know, a scary incident is helpful. To a dog they're wondering why their leader is, you know, acting nervous and is praising them for being afraid because they don't understand the words.

  • 11:46:11

    SLOBODCHIKOFFI've actually worked with dog behavior quite a bit. And I've done some behavioral consulting with problems that people have with their pets. And what I have found is that 80 percent of the time a lot of the problems are due to miscommunication between the dog and the humans.

  • 11:46:29

    REHMGive me an example.

  • 11:46:32

    SLOBODCHIKOFFOkay, here's an example. I am called into somebody who says I have a very dominant, very aggressive dog who tries to be in charge of the whole household. And I want to solve this problem. I come in and I see that the dog's reaction to the humans in the household is the dog starts to cringe. The tail goes down. The ears go down. The dog droops his head. And when the people get near the people say good dog in a bark. And the dog cowers even more. And if the people get close the dog snaps at them.

  • 11:47:09

    SLOBODCHIKOFFAnd the people say see I told you. The dog is very dominant. Well, the dog is not dominant. The dog is afraid of the people. And they bark good dog and re-enforce the fact that the dog is afraid of the people. So by knowing something about dog body language this problem could go away. They could reassure the dog.

  • 11:47:34

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThey could positively re-enforce certain kinds of situations instead of seemingly barking at the dog and making the dog even more fearful. So if we could get people to understand what dog body language is. And I agree with the caller that a lot of dog communication is visual and not verbal. But if we can get people to understand what dog body language actually is telling them, they would have a much better relationship with their dog.

  • 11:48:03

    REHMAll right. Thanks for calling, Shannon. Let's go to Arlington, Va. good morning, Kevin.

  • 11:48:13

    KEVINHi, Diane. This is a fascinating topic. Thank you.

  • 11:48:15


  • 11:48:15

    KEVINI'm hoping that your guest can comment on interspecies communication. Clearly animals can communicate amongst their own species. But I have two brief anecdotes to share that will, hopefully, inspire some comments. I observed one afternoon a huge mass of birds flying in and out of a single large tree chirping very loudly. And as I got closer I saw that there was hawk beneath the tree pecking at some other smaller bird it had somehow captured.

  • 11:48:40

    KEVINAnd clearly the birds were defending their own. But what startled me was that the birds chirping at the hawk and trying to chase it away were a number of different species all working together, including, you know, sparrows, blue jays, robins, starlings, finches. You know, the perception or -- or not the perception, but my expectation was that it would just be one particular species.

  • 11:48:59

    KEVINAlso, and my cat used to sit at the top of the stairs and glare and growl at our dog on the floor below. And instead of instantly charging or responding in kind the dog would whine for a few minutes before eventually losing patience. And all of this makes me wonder do we know the extent to which different species communicate with one another? It appears as if the common perception that animals are dumb per se and incapable of conscious communication is just an example of our own human hubris and ignorance.

  • 11:49:23

    SLOBODCHIKOFFWell, I agree with you that it is an example of human hubris. We do know that, for example, in terms of alarm calls there are starlings that can identify the alarm calls of zebras and identify who the predator is.

  • 11:49:38

    REHMHum, hum.

  • 11:49:40

    SLOBODCHIKOFFAnd it works vice versa. There are monkeys of several species who know the alarm calls of the other species. And can respond when predator is there when they hear another species alarm call. So I'm sure that there are lots of examples of other species understanding some part of the language of another species.

  • 11:50:03

    SLOBODCHIKOFFBut we do have to keep in mind that animal languages are all separate for each species. Each species has its own language. And so it's kind of, for another species, like learning a foreign language. You can pick up bits and pieces. Or, perhaps, you can become fluent if you're around for a long time. But it's not something that instantly comes to another species.

  • 11:50:25

    REHMAll right. And to Greenville, N.C., Juan, you're on the air.

  • 11:50:32

    JUANHi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:50:34


  • 11:50:34

    JUANI was wondering about a parrot that my sister owns. Like, he seems to know, like, how to tease with the dog, you know. Like, how to mess with the dog because every time the dog is, like, minding his own business he goes and says good afternoon. And then the dog comes to the door barking. And as soon as he goes back to his place, he does it again, you know.

  • 11:51:05

    REHMHuh. So he's -- so the parrot is saying these words and confusing the dog.

  • 11:51:15

    JUANYes. Yes. And he also says I'm hungry when he wants to be fed. And, you know, he talks a lot.

  • 11:51:26

    SLOBODCHIKOFFParrots are very intelligent animals. And so it doesn't surprise me that the parrot might be bored and decide to play with the dog.

  • 11:51:35

    REHMTo tease the dog.

  • 11:51:36

    SLOBODCHIKOFFTease the dog.

  • 11:51:36


  • 11:51:37

    SLOBODCHIKOFFAnd if the dog is relatively smart, the dog can catch on eventually and start to tease the parrot.

  • 11:51:44

    REHMLet's talk about these parrots for a moment. And how you see their ability to use language as we know it and how that may reflect on other species.

  • 11:52:04

    SLOBODCHIKOFFParrots are one of the birds that can actually learn a tremendous amount of vocal information. But we also know that, in the wild, parrots have a lot of communication with each other. They spend a lot of time "talking to each other" about different kinds of contexts. And they have not really been studied that extensively in the wild compared to parrots in the laboratory.

  • 11:52:32

    SLOBODCHIKOFFNow we know, for example, from Irene Pepperberg's work with Alex, the African Grey Parrot, who sadly died a fear years ago, that Alex could give Irene the concept of different colors. For example, he could differentiate between blue and yellow. He also had concepts of shape. He could tell whether something was a square or a triangle. In English he had concepts of texture. He could tell whether something was metal or plastic. So he had an incredibly wide range of information that he could convey in English.

  • 11:53:10

    REHMNow would that imply that the parrot had a mind and not just a brain?

  • 11:53:22

    SLOBODCHIKOFFI think that would certainly imply that because the parrot would make decisions. And sometimes when the parrot didn't feel like cooperating he'd say the wrong thing. Or he'd say that's all now and quit.

  • 11:53:35

    REHMI love it. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But I am not quitting now. Let's go to Berrien Spring, Mich. good morning, Dan.

  • 11:53:50

    DANGood morning. How are you, Diane?

  • 11:53:51

    REHMI'm good, thank you.

  • 11:53:53

    DANGood. I find this subject fascinating. My wife and I have been animal lovers for many years. And a book that comes to mind, that I wonder if the author has read, is "The Parrot's Lament." It is a book about many different animals and the anecdotal evidences of communication between man and animal over many species.

  • 11:54:20

    SLOBODCHIKOFFI've actually read it. It came out a long time ago by Eugene Linden. And he did combine a lot of anecdotal information. And I think that it's a groundbreaking book in that it brought together a lot of information in a way that was accessible to many of the general public, not just scientists. But we do have to keep in mind that, from a scientific standpoint, anecdotes are interesting, but they're not really evidence of anything.

  • 11:54:49

    SLOBODCHIKOFFAnd this is where scientists differ from people among the general public because we among the general public talk about anecdotes with our dogs, with our parrots and so on. And a scientist would say, well, that's all very nice, but has this been shown in an experiment. And in an experiment you need to have repeatability. So you need to have multiple animals doing the same thing. You need to analyze this statistically for it to be considered valid. And that's very difficult to do, particularly in doing something like showing that animals have minds. Or sometimes that animals can speak to each other. Because animals don't necessarily always want to cooperate like Alex, the parrot. They get bored.

  • 11:55:31

    REHMSo if I, as a person who lives with a small dog, assume that that dog not only communicates with me, but understands me, how is my behavior likely to be different from what it might be if I did not make that assumption?

  • 11:56:05

    SLOBODCHIKOFFI think if you assume that the animal can communicate with you and understand you, then you are much more likely to try to take care of the animal's needs better instead of just simply locking the animal up in a room someplace or putting the dog out in the backyard where the dog barks all night. You're much more likely to treat this dog as a sentient being.

  • 11:56:35

    SLOBODCHIKOFFAnd I think this is where we are going, hopefully, with all animals or, at least, many of the animals that I show in my book that actually do have language. That we are willing to extend to them the possibility that they, too, are sentient beings with minds of their own, with self awareness. And that they can actually talk to each other and we can empathize with that talk.

  • 11:57:00

    REHMCon Slobodchikoff, he's professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University. His new book is titled, "Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals." Thank you for being here.

  • 11:57:21

    SLOBODCHIKOFFThank you, Diane, for having me. It's been a pleasure.

  • 11:57:23

    REHMMy pleasure. And thanks all for listening. Back with you tomorrow. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 11:57:31

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