What if Your Pet Could Really 'Talk' to You?

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dog growling or barking at shelter
A communication tool can help shelter workers determine if animals are scared or in pain. UzFoto/Shutterstock
portrait of dog and woman communicating
With this new technology, you wouldn't have to read your dog's mind. Olesya Kuznetsova/Shutterstock

Sometimes you wish you could read your pet's mind. Why does your dog hide when the vacuum cleaner comes out but bark like mad at the dishwasher? How come your cat sometimes turns up her nose at her favorite food?

In many instances, we can figure our pets out. Standing at the back door or hovering over a food bowl aren't tough to interpret. But there are plenty of other situations that sometimes leave us baffled, pushing us to consult veterinarians, trainers and behaviorists for help.

But soon we may just have to listen and a pet translator will tell us what's going on.

Con Slobodchikoff, a professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University and the author of "Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals," is a pioneer in animal communication.

He has spent more than three decades studying the communication and social behavior of prairie dogs. He discovered they have different calls of alarm when they encounter people, coyotes, dogs and red-tailed hawks. With their complex language, they can describe the size and shape of predators to each other, Slobodchikoff found.

After developing an understanding of prairie dogs' sophisticated language, Slobodchikoff collaborated with a computer scientist to create an algorithm to turn each vocalization into English. Now he plans to develop similar technology that translates pet sounds, expressions and movements, reports NBC News.

"I thought, if we can do this with prairie dogs, we can certainly do it with dogs and cats," Slobodchikoff said.

How it will work

Slobodchikoff's pet work is still in its infancy, so it could be a decade before you're chatting with your pet.

At this point, he tells NBC, he's collecting thousands of videos of dogs making all sorts of sounds and body movements. He'll use those videos to instruct the algorithm, which will have to be taught how to interpret each sound or movement.

Slobodchikoff, who also teaches dog training classes and consults on dog behavior issues, won't be the only one giving meaning to the behaviors. He'll use scientific research to decipher what each bark, growl, tail wag and grimace means.

He says his goal is to develop a communicator that you point at your dog (and eventually cat) that will translate the animal's sounds into words. He says it could be as simple as, "I want to eat now" or "I want to go for a walk."

This isn't the first time man has tried to talk to his best friend. Researchers at NC State created a harness with sensors to monitor a dog's activity and heart rate. They communicated with the dog via speakers and vibrating motors. Researchers at Georgia Tech are working on wearable technology that would allow dogs to communicate with their handlers.

A good or bad idea?

dog growling or barking at shelter
A communication tool can help shelter workers determine if animals are scared or in pain. UzFoto/Shutterstock

Certified dog trainer and behaviorist Susie Aga has mixed feelings about the idea.

"I'm torn. I think it's good for a person who doesn’t have a relationship with their dog and great for shelters and rescues who need to figure out 'this dog needs space' versus 'this dog is aggressive,'" says Aga, owner of Atlanta Dog Trainer. "I just wonder how precise it's going to be."

So much will depend on whether the algorithm reads cues correctly, and that depends on how the information is interpreted.

"He's going to really have consulted a lot of studies for me to really take his word that he understands facial expressions, body language, twitches, ears, vocalizations, everything," Aga says.

Where the tool could be really valuable is for people who have to evaluate frightened dogs at shelters, to find out if there are underlying issues. The communicator could tell rescue workers that a dog is just scared in the new surroundings, versus the dog that is aggressive or hurt.

"If it helps pain and fear in any animal, that's great. Then I'm all for it."