Can we learn the 'languages' animals use? Do they ever really learn ours?
I spoke to some animal communication experts – as well as some pet-owner friends – to learn what it's like when your audience members have paws, beaks, tails, and other animally bits.
Does my dog speak English?
Yes – if you do, it probably does too. Dogs, and heaps of other animals, can understand human speech. To a certain extent at least.
John W. Pilley is a US psychologist who has trained his dog Chaser to identify 1,022 nouns.
She can even tell the difference between certain verbs – fetching, pawing or 'nose-ing' an object on request.
And Dr Pilley has made sure Chaser is actually responding to his words, rather than other cues like eye or body movement. He doesn't wave a lead in Chaser's face while shouting 'WALKIES', if that's what you're thinking.
Take a look. She's pretty incredible.
Lots of animals have become famous for extraordinary feats of communication. Like Koko the western lowland gorilla, who understands 2,000 human words.
Or Kanzi the bonobo, who can obey commands he's never heard before.
Could my dog also learn French?
Yes. It seems your dog could learn as many languages as you have the time to teach it.
Words are just sounds to your dog, but if you teach it two sounds for 'sit', it will probably sit for both. But you can't just start spouting Tongan at him and expect obedience.
I know this because I conducted an entirely unscientific experiment of my own. I got lots of my friends to speak to their bemused canines in a totally new language and see what happened.
Which was not a lot, it turns out. My pooch-loving pals said:
Wilf obeyed 'sit' in English consistently and expectantly. Tried again in Arabic. Zero interest.
I just tried it with my dogs in Japanese and they did nothing. Interested and listening, but no action.
Only German worked on our dogs. I guess it sounds similar to English.
I asked Molly, an experienced vet, for expert advice. She said:
Because dogs are listening for sounds, if the command sounds like anything he already knows, he will respond. Otherwise, he will probably just look blankly and do whatever he wants.
Do biscuits speak louder than words?
Yes. Animals read body language and respond to visual – and edible – cues. They also rely on senses we tend to neglect or just don't have – like their acute sense of smell or hearing.
Dr John Bradshaw is the author of In Defence of Dogs. He says dogs 'don't pay a huge amount of attention to what we're saying'.
They 'talk' mostly through body language. They talk to each other, and they also understand what we are going to do through our movements.
Which might explain my friend Yvonne's experience with her dog:
As a child, I used to make my dog sit and stay. Then, from about 100 yards away, I would call out excitedly 'WINDOW!' and he'd come running.
I'm fairly certain the encouraging shouting from a distance was a bigger draw than her actual words.
Why does my dog bark instead of saying 'hello'?
Dogs don't have the physical make-up needed to form words. But some animals do. Elephants and beluga whales can mimic human speech.
Alex the African grey parrot was quite the celebrity. He could say over 150 words. He even made a speech on his deathbed:
You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.
And even animals that can't sound out human words find ways to communicate with us all
Akeakamai the dolphin could speak to her trainers by pushing paddles to say 'yes' or 'no'. Kanzi the bonobo used a computer to put together simple phrases. Koko the gorilla is fluent in a modified form of American Sign Language.
In east Africa, the honeyguide bird uses a special call to attract humans. It leads them to beehives and waits until they remove the hive from a tree. The people take most of the honeycomb, but leave their feathered beneficiaries lots of delicious wax and larvae.
Teamwork makes the dream work.
Does my dog have special powers?
Maybe. Who knows? Animals could be communicating with each other all the time in ways we don't understand.
Incredibly, it turns out that horses move their ears as a way of talking to each other and birds have regional accents.
In Australia, pet cockatoos have escaped into the wild and taught other birds how to speak. They've passed on some absolute corkers, including – brilliantly – 'Hello darling!'
As Dr John Bradshaw, our dog expert, says:
The question that remains unanswered is this (and it would be very difficult to even begin to answer): do dogs have cognitive abilities that do not have any direct counterpart in our own? … Are they perhaps capable of processing the information they gather through their noses, in ways we do not yet understand?
Perhaps dogs – and all animal species – have methods and means of communication far beyond anything we've imagined while changing the cat litter or visiting the zoo.
That said, if Eddie Murphy's experience is anything to go by, a little mystery in inter-species communication might not be such a bad thing…