Can We Really Talk with our Pets?

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Research associate in psychology at Harvard University Irene Pepperberg is best known for her work with birds, particularly a parrot named Alex. But she knows lots about animals in general, and is teaching a spring course at Harvard about Interspecies Communication: Can We Really Talk with the Animals?, which starts in January, 2012.

 Check out some of the questions she answered in a recent blog post from the university

Do animals have their own thoughts?

Very likely, but their thoughts may be quite different from ours. Most non-humans probably think in “pictures.” As scientists, we are trying to figure out just what kinds of thoughts animals have and how they process information. One of the rationales for teaching animals to communicate with humans via various symbolic systems is to be able to question them in ways similar to how we question young children, to figure out nonhuman thought process and see how different or similar they may be to humans.

You hear stories in the news about dogs alerting their owners to a fire in the middle of the night. How is this ability to recognize danger and know to alert others about it possible?

Many non-humans have senses that are far more acute than ours. Dogs, for example, have exquisite senses of smell and hear in higher ranges than we do. Most animals are keenly aware of their environments and changes because in the wild, changes can be a matter of life and death. So even though humans have bred dogs for various traits for thousands of years, dogs can still perceive what is unusual in an environment. Some dogs will then alert their “pack” members—their human family.

How can the average dog, cat, or bird owner communicate more effectively with their pet?

As a start, pay attention to all their actions, and see which specific actions relate to specific events in the environment. You can then get an idea about how the animal is commenting upon what is going on or trying to attract attention to its needs. For bird owners, labeling every interaction may encourage the bird to associate human labels with the events and then use the labels appropriately. While that's not a guarantee, many pet birds do pick up some labels that way; I use specific training techniques—a modeling system involving two humans—for my birds.

Submitted by Blue Rolfes

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