We believe we know what our dogs are thinking when we talk to them. But we could be wrong. For example, I could be out on a beautiful morning walk with Madam Dog:
Me: Isn't life great when we can be out walking together on a glorious morning such as this!
Madam Dog: Get your little bag ready. I'm going to need a comfort stop.
Perhaps we have even interpreted the whole walkies thing incorrectly.
Madam Dog: I hate walkies. I just enjoy seeing someone carrying around my little goodie bag.
In our kitchen we have an oft-used oven glove that was a Christmas present. On it is stitched the message, "We woof you a merry Christmas."
Me: That's a fun pun.
Madam Dog: Sigh! They can't even spell "wish" correctly!
Another kitchen-based misinterpretation might be:
Me: Would you like some exercise?
Madam Dog: Of course I'd like some extra fries but you never let me have potatoes.
My opening suggestion is even more likely when it comes to baby talk.
Me (in a high-pitched voice): Who's a broofiful baby then?
Madam Dog: Why don't you talk properly?
A study from the University of Lyon in France by a bioacoustician (a real job) found that when humans use high-pitched baby talk to dogs it is exciting to puppies but not so much to mature pooches who show little or no interest.
Madam Dog: Haven't they got better things to do?
Another team at the University of York in England carried out a similar study and their findings have been published in the journal "Animal Cognition", so it's over to you if you want to know more.
Madam Dog: Were these people also bioacousticians?
Two further American studies agreed that dogs process both the content and the manner of delivery to interpret a message. But one of them went further and tested whether you could trick dogs by delivering negative words with positive delivery and vice versa.
The canines were not conned.
These findings disproved the common belief that dogs only understand the tone of our voice and do not understand the meaning of the words themselves.
Madam Dog: I could have told you that.
Another study somewhere else had some other findings about something else. The results have probably been published in a journal.
And I've just had another interesting thought. Can dogs eavesdrop and understand our non-dog-directed communications with friends and family or people we are telephoning? And if so can they misinterpret that too? Should we whisper so they cannot hear then misinterpret?
I think we're safe. Even if they did hear and understand, we can rest assured they would not repeat a word of it.
And anyway, if an old Gary Larson cartoon is true, a dog's hearing is very selective. In the cartoon, the dog owner is saying, "Okay, Ginger! I've had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else."
In the other frame, a thought bubble shows what the dog is hearing: "Blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah…"
Whatever the answers are, I guess the dogs have a few things satisfactorily sorted. I saw a cartoon dog and thought bubble on a greeting card and it seems to sum things up without any chance of misinterpretation:
"Yesterday I began to wonder if there was more to life than eating and sleeping but then I had my dinner and nodded off … "
"Today I saw a woman talking to her cat. She really thought the cat understood. I told my dog when I got home. We both had a good laugh." - unknown
Wyn Drabble is a teacher of English, a writer, musician and public speaker.