Therapy dogs and animal communication

It’s well known how well animals communicate with people (an important part of the animal vocal language which I studied for my dissertation), and dogs are well known for their calming, confidence giving and sensitivity to people’s needs. Therapy dogs provide vital support and help to people – in many ways from learning to animal assisted therapy.

Tennessee Safety Spotters

TN Safety Spotters Animal Friends are helping to Teach Children  (on Facebook)

Registered Therapy Dogs travel the Mid South area visitng schools, fire stations, and special events teaching Fire Safety and Dog Bite Prevention. Animal-assisted interactions in hospitals, abuse centers, schools, libraries helping children in times of difficulty. Registered Reading Education Assistance Dogs.

Corridor Therapy Dogs R.E.A.D. Program (on Facebook)

Corridor Therapy Dogs R.E.A.D. Program consists of Delta Society teams whose dogs are trained to be “excellent listeners” helping children improve literacy skills while reading books to them.

ITA therapy animals and their handlers are screened, trained, licensed and insured to participate in animal-assisted interactions (AAI), which may be either animal-assisted activities (AAA) or animal-assisted therapy (AAT).

These are fantastic services providing support and teaching to people when they most need it 🙂

So given that we relate to them so easily, do animals have linguistic abilities comparable to those of humans?

This is a question which has provoked a lot of contentious scientific debate, and the one which I am investigating for my thesis. It fascinates me, both from a purely scientific and physiological approach looking at the brain structures involved in spoken language to the philosophical debate on animal awareness.

Many questions have been answered and (as is often the case) many more raised. But as a general pattern in the literature, linguistic abilities traditionally thought to be uniquely human traits are being attributed more and more to other species.

Alex the Parrot, trained in studies by Irene Pepperberg, is a key example, as well as Akaekamae the dolphin, Kanzi the bonobo and Washoe the chimpanzee. a lot of the evidence documented from the studies suggests that these animals have a capability for the understanding of syntax, and could apply it in novel contexts. Often this occurred without prompting, an example being the final words of Alex to his trainer: “You be good. I love you.”

The fact that many animals also use vocal communication for the same reasons as humans also suggests that it shares a common evolutionary origin. Many of the same brain regions are involved in vocal learning (Broca’s an Wernicke’s regions being some of the most studied), and in fact certain types of sounds tend to have the same effect regardless of the species.

According to Owren and Rendall, abrupt noises with erratic frequencies directly effect certain neural pathways in the brain. The listener’s attention is immediately shifted from their current activity to the source of the sound, and they may become alert or alarmed (in both of these cases it increases activity). The alarm calls across species tend to be structurally very similar; and all designed to create an instant and urgent reaction in the listener. The opposite effect is seen from continuous sounds, gradually moving from a high to a lower pitch. These have an almost universally ‘calming’ effect across species, decreasing mental excitement and tending to reduce activity.

I would argue that language in general has a common evolutionary origin closely linked to social living, and that with a diverse range of different structures for sound production, animals make use of vocal signals for many of the same functions as humans. Another of these common functions would be courtship, with the songs of birds as well as whales being key examples (among many other species). Song in many species also functions as territorial defense, analogous to the national anthems of humans. Birds sing to advertise their fitness and ability, if necessary, to fight off other males; national anthems not only define ‘territory’ but are equally sung before sports competitions where players compete to display their fitness and skill against rivals.

It is certainly the case that in many cases where animals and humans interact, a certain level of mutual understanding can be reached. Those who interact with livestock make good use of different whistles and clicks to control and coordinate their charges. For people with learning difficulties, interaction with animals has been found to be of huge benefit (a good example of this being Riding for the Disabled (RDA), and the use of therapy animals for teaching). Even children who have difficulties in communicating by the use of human language share a common ability to relate to animals.

Animals such as dogs, are invaluable for giving confidence, support and therapy to people when they most need it. It is no coincidence that people relate to them so easily, and that animals can show such sensitivity to people. Most importantly, animals do not show pity, or ask questions, or talk back. Animals are objective – they may empathise with people but do not feel sorry for them whatever their position. They give affection in the same way regardless – never looking down on anyone unless they are helping them up.

So despite a classical view that animal vocal communication can teach us very little about human language, I believe they share a lot more in common than might have been previously thought.

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3 thoughts on “Therapy dogs and animal communication

  1. That’s really interesting about the listening dogs for reading. I suppose the children don’t feel as self-conscious reading to a dog as they would to a human, and yet they still have the feeling of being listened to.

    • Exactly :-D))) 100%!! They open up…because dogs don’t judge (all pet owners are less self-conscious in front of their pets). They lend a sympathetic ear 🙂 . I have also (through Patricia Belts who is a mutual friend) contacted Tony Nevett from the UK, who owns a greyhound called Danny who helps teach children reading…it’s a real eye opener! There’s a recent video about his work here:
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-northamptonshire-15450670

      ….Danny the greyhound received the award from The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and has been trained with the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) programme (like the dalmatian I painted for Patricia Belts called Dora)

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