For the last 15 years I have studied the mind of our unflaggingly good-spirited companion, the domestic dog. My laboratory, the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard, looks at everything from play behavior in the wild (between dogs and wild humans) to whether dogs prefer a larger over a smaller plate of hot dogs if the large plate also smelled like mint or lavender (they don't). But mine is a profession that truly seeps into my non-professional life, for every day I am surrounded by my subjects. It is well nigh impossible not to bring a scientific eye to the dogs that rest on my bed, and to those who I meet in the parks and along city sidewalks.

So over the last months I have been doing some top-secret quasi-science. That is, I've been gathering data in my neighborhood in New York City by eavesdropping on the things people say to their dogs. Humans are a species which anthropomorphizes dogs to incredible degrees (as can be attested to by anyone who has seen a pug forced to dress like Winston Churchill). Sure, we know they aren't really small, furry people (well, most of us seem to know this), but great numbers of people would willingly attest to their dogs being "their children" -- or at least claim to think of them as members of their family. But do we really treat them like little people? I figured that some clue to that would come in how we speak to them.

To find out how people talk to dogs, I snuck into no homes; no, the "data" I gathered are the result of overheard remarks while I walked by owner and dog(s) in the park or on the sidewalk, and which I quickly scribbled down on a notepad. In ethology, we would, generously, call this ad lib data gathering: simply noting and recording every word people utter when I neared them. And, oh, there were many utterances: on every walk I've taken in the last months, on a commute, to the store, or out with my own pups, I encountered people with dogs. Some pass silently, but many are in apparent constant dialogue with the pup at the end of the leash. What the dog-talk I've gathered shows is not how much we talk to dogs, nor the percentage of people who do so talk, but the kinds of things we say to dogs.

    Who's the sweetest weetest doggie in the whole park? That's right! You is! (Direct quote.)

There's a good amount of that. And there are infinite, mind-numbing varieties of pithy commands we bark at them, repeatedly:

    Come! Come on! Come here! Come here now! Come here, you!

    Sit! Sit! Sit! Siiiiit. Sih-Tuh: Sit!

    Wait. No. Wait. No.

    Stop! Stop [rolling in that/eating that/humping that]!

    Leave it!

And so on. How exhausting it must be to listen to another round of leave it!s on each walk. (Come to think of it, maybe that's why they don't listen.)

After several weeks, I began to notice clear patterns in the things we say to dogs. Most fit nicely into one of the following five categories, listed below with actual examples from out on the streets of the city (with dog names redacted, to protect the innocent):

1. The Almost Realistic (there is a possibility the dog understands what you're talking about)

    Want a treat?

    OK, here's your ball.

    Look: bagels!

2. Momentarily Confusing Dog With A 2-Year-Old Kid
    No, no more...look at those little eyes, they're open!

    C'mon girls. We will be late for supper.

    You are a cutey-face.

    You sit right there and let them pet you.


3. Assuming Extravagant Powers Of Understanding
    You remember, how we were going to cooperate? Good girl.

    Don't act like you're not interested.

    Oh no. Oh that would be inappropriate. No.

    No, you just played with Angus! We are not going back!

    We don't need you to fix everyone's problems.

4. Totally Inexplicable

    Come on. Be a man.


5. Ongoing (One-way) Conversation
    What are you doing? You don't need to chew that. Put it down....Thank you.

    Alright, are they dogs? Yup, okay. C'mon then.

    You all set with that? Had enough? Okay; good.

    What's the matter? Is your ear still hurting? Let me look. Hold still. Does that hurt? Hmm?

    Hey, how're you doing? So nice to see you, so nice to see you, yes, mmm-hmm, hello.

    Who is that? Who is that? Is that your friend Lindy? Oh, no, it's not. Whoops. You were right.

6. In Some Ways, We Are All Just Talking To Ourselves
    Time for someone to get a serious haircut.

    Sometimes you have to go around, buddy.

    Let's go to the bathroom! Let's go to the bathroom!

    You need a coat. I need a coat. Can I have some of your coat?

This last category really engulfs all the others. We talk to dogs not as if they are people, but as if they are the invisible person inside of our own heads. Our remarks to them are our thoughts, articulated. We talk to narrate what we are doing with our dogs: Now we are going to the park, boys, let's get going, don't want to miss seeing your friend!

Many of our thoughts while we walk our dogs are not so profound, but they are a running commentary on our days, which serves to lend meaning to ordinary activities. In that way, the dog is not really in the conversation. But he, ostensive recipient of our thinking out loud, is helping us to be...ourselves.

Good dog. Thank you, dog. 

Photo: Flickr/Greg Herringer