A dog at the keyboard: using arbitrary signs to communicate requests

Abstract

As a consequence of domestication, dogs have a special readiness for communication with humans. We here investigate whether a dog might be able to acquire and consistently produce a set of arbitrary signs in her communication with humans, as was demonstrated in “linguistic” individuals of several species. A female mongrel dog was submitted to a training schedule in which, after basic command training and after acquiring the verbal labels of rewarding objects or activities, she learned to ask for such objects or activities by selecting lexigrams and pressing keys on a keyboard. Systematic records taken during spontaneous interaction with one of the experimenters showed that lexigrams were used in an appropriate, intentional way, in accordance with the immediate motivational context. The dog only utilized the keyboard in the experimenter’s presence and gazed to him more frequently after key pressing than before, an indication that lexigram use did have communicative content. Results suggest that dogs may be able to learn a conventional system of signs associated to specific objects and activities, functionally analogous to spontaneous soliciting behaviors and point to the potential fruitfulness of the keyboard/lexigram procedure for studying dog communication and cognition. This is the first report to systematically analyze the learning of arbitrary sign production in dogs.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Dorothy Fragazy, Robert Young and Adam Miklósi for their careful reading of the manuscript and for valuable suggestions, Carine Savalli Redígolo for statistical assistance, and Daniel Gravian Gomes Santiago, Aline Borges do Carmo, Camila Razzante, Andreza Lustri, Arine Pellegrino, Paula Hiromi Itikawa, Maria Helena Truksa de Barros Machado for assistance in running sessions, and analyzing and discussing data. Special thanks are due to Daniela Ramos for help and support throughout the study. This study, which was supported by a CNPq grant to César Ades, complies with the current Brazilian laws regarding the use of animals in research.

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Correspondence to César Ades.

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S1. Sofia moves towards (unattainable) food placed on the table and then signs “comida” (food). (WMV 529 kb)

S2. Alexandre puts a toy on the table thus eliciting approach from Sofia. Sofia presses the “brinquedo” (toy) key. (WMV 447 kb)

S3 Sofia presses the “passear” (walk) key, while Alexandre is putting on his shoes, looks to the door, walks around and approaches the door again. She then watches Alexandre who is getting the leash from a closet. (WMV 1,484 kb)

S4 Coming back from a walk, Sofia presses “água” (water). (WMV 1,700 kb)

S5 This clip does not belong to the sample of experimental records but is relevant as it shows Sofia’s use of the keyboard with a different person. Carine asks “O que você quer ?” (what do you want ?) and Sofia presses the “água” key (repeating the behavior when water is withdrawn). (MPG 2,019 kb)

S6 Sofia presses the key for “carinho” (petting) and gets close to Alexandre. (WMV 755 kb)

S7 Sofia spontaneously presses the key for “casinha” (crate), at night, time to sleep. She then looks at Alexandre, goind directly into the crate when it is open. (WMV 1,026 kb)

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Rossi, A.P., Ades, C. A dog at the keyboard: using arbitrary signs to communicate requests. Anim Cogn 11, 329–338 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-007-0122-3

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Keywords

  • Dog–human communication
  • Arbitrary signs acquisition
  • Keyboard use