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Can Dogs Teach Other Dogs to Speak?

Dogs can learn communicative sound patterns from other dogs

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd image
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd image

Humans obviously teach other humans the vocal sounds that we call words. Dogs also use a broad range of sounds to communicate. Some of these canine sounds are inborn and seem to be universal across all dogs, regardless of their breed or geographic location, however some canine sounds are much rarer and are found only in a smaller percentage of the dog population. Where do these specific sounds come from, and could they be learned, say from observing and listening to other dogs? These questions popped into my mind during a conversation that I had with a visiting researcher who has had the unique opportunity to do research on wolves in the Acadian region of eastern Canada. While most of his research has to do with wolves living in the wild, some behavioral studies have been done with captive wolf populations. Based on some observations that he had made he posed a question to me.

"Do you know of any research where canines learn specific communication sounds from other canines? The reason I ask is because of something I noticed recently. We know that dogs bark a lot and use specific barks, or bark patterns, to communicate [click here for more about that] or to tell us about their emotional state [click here for more about that]. Although wolves howl more frequently than dogs, adult wolves rarely bark. Anyway, a group of wolves was brought in for observation and placed in a large compound. That compound was right next to a kennel where a number of dogs were kept. These wolves were 'guests' of the project for the better part of six months. They seemed to be very interested in the dogs and watched them quite a bit. What was most interesting was that over the course of their stay we began observe that the wolves were beginning to bark more and more. They were barking much more often than you ever see wolves barking in the wild. Furthermore their bark patterns seemed to also become very similar to those of the dogs, and their barking was often triggered by the same kinds of things that cause our domestic dogs to bark. It appeared to me that the wolves were learning this form of canine communication simply from watching and listening to the dogs near them. So I was wondering whether there was any scientific research which demonstrated how one canine can learn to produce sound communications by simply observing other canines."

Unfortunately I could not find any systematic research on this topic, however over the years I have collected a number of reports and observations which seem to show that dogs can learn to imitate the barking behaviors of other dogs in various situations. One from several years ago involved some professional acquaintances who owned a Gordon Setter named Sheila. This breed is not particularly noisy in most cases, and Sheila was a very quiet example of her kind. The eldest daughter of this family had been living on her own for a few years, but now had the opportunity to go for some advanced training at a school another city. Since she would be living in a dormitory for the year, she could not bring her Airedale Terrier, Argus, with her. So as loving parents they agreed to temporarily "adopt" the dog until their daughter returned. Argus was a typical terrier. He barked when people came to the door, he barked when people left the house, and he barked just for the joy of hearing himself bark. As the weeks passed Sheila's behavior began to change. Now, when Argus would bark at the door, so would she, and sometimes, when Argus was simply charging around the house, barking at phantoms and fantasies as a game, Sheila would join in with her own sonorous bark. Long after Argus had left to rejoin his mistress on her return, Sheila still continued the barking behavior that she had learned from her large terrier friend.

Another example concerns my well-loved Flat Coat Retriever named Odin. He had a "request bark" which he used to ask to be let back into the house after being out in the backyard for a while. It was a single bark which was followed by a long pause of anywhere between 30 seconds to more than a minute, before it was repeated. I rewarded this bark when he was only a few months in age, by quickly responding and letting him back into the house. This was clearly a barking sound that he learned to use for a specific communication purpose. It sounded noticeably different from his other barks. It is difficult to describe the sound in words but it appeared to be to be somewhat artificial or forced since it ended with a sort of raspy finish. When Odin was an adult I obtained my first Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Dancer, who arrived at my house as an eight week old puppy, I would let him out with Odin to eliminate, as part of his housebreaking. It took less than a week for Dancer to develop that same bark. The pattern of timing was the same, but being only a puppy the pitch of his bark was much higher. Still, even with the tonal differences, it sounded forced and artificial in the same way that Odin's bark did, with that same raspy finish to each single utterance. Despite the fact that Odin passed away a few years later, Dancer continued to use this bark as a signal that he wanted to come in from the yard. I interpreted this to mean that Dancer had not only learned to imitate the sound that Odin made but also learned the communication significance of that sound. It suggested to me that the adult dog had "taught" the puppy a word or a phrase in his particular dialect of dog language. Dancer later went on to "teach" a variant of that same sound to my Beagle, Darby, when he arrived a few years later.

Sometimes dogs in the same household will imitate each other to the degree that they develop a sort of a common "Doggish dialect." An example of this involves excitement noises. It has been observed that there are there are three main sounds that generally characterize excitement in most dogs. I can crudely describe these in words as the excitement whine, the moan-yodel ("yowel-wowel-owel-wowel") and the howl-yawn (a breathy excited "Hooooooo-ah-hooooo") All of these sounds are made as the dog stares directly at you (and sometimes at whatever is causing the excitement) and twirls around to show its happy state of arousal. Each dog seems to decide on which of these sounds it makes in excited anticipation and it does not seem to depend upon their breed. The odd thing, however, is that dogs that live together seem to imitate each other so that all are using the same sound. Thus I have an acquaintance who owns four Flat Coat Retrievers and all of her dogs make the howl-yawn sound. I know another person with three dogs of different breeds, a Pekingese, an English Springer Spaniel and a Flat Coat Retriever, and all (including the Flat coat) make the moan-yodel sound.

Out of curiosity I conducted an informal survey of sixteen people who own more than one dog, and whose dogs have all grown up from puppy-hood in the same house. I described the three major excitement sounds that dogs make to them and asked them which sounds each of their dogs made when they were excited. Twelve of these people reported that all of their dogs use the same excitement sounds, regardless of breeds. I can't really call this strong or systematic data, however it is suggestive and is at least consistent with the idea that dogs learn to use particular communication sounds from observing other dogs. It seems intriguing enough so that it would be worthwhile for someone with an active canine laboratory to investigate this question and perhaps provide a more convincing, data-based answer to this question.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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