Incredible Mister Hans

If Only They Could Talk

When I was a child I wished I could talk to animals. I didn’t realize that all I had to do was watch and listen. Animals were chattering away all around me, they just didn’t speak English, and some didn’t even use sound to communicate. 

One of the problems with communication between humans and animals (and even between other humans) is that you think you have effective communication, but both parties are taking away completely different meanings from the interaction. 

I love finding insights into how animals think. I used to have training sessions with Hans where the aim was to improve communication rather than teach a particular behavior. Positive reinforcement training encourages the animal to be inventive and offer behaviors. It’s through the process of rewarding the behavior you want to see more of that you are able to shape and train an action to a cue or command. It’s a bit like playing a game of “hot” and “cold”. 

You can use this way of training to improve communication skills and even explain abstract concepts. Every week I’d spend an hour or so playing these communication games with Hans where I’d try to teach the names of colours or ask him how he’d rank his treats. 

One such task involved showing Hans a toy and asking him to get me another of the same type. For example, I’d set out a rope toy beside some Nylabones. I’d show Hans a different rope toy and ask him to bring me the toy that matched it. 

I’d done these sessions with him a few times and I was confident he had grasped the concept, so I thought I’d increase the difficulty. I emptied out his training toys into a pile, picked out a ball, and asked him to bring me it’s like. 

Hans loved balls, so I thought this would be easy for him. He carefully searched through the pile, picking up items and discarding them, before selecting the perfect object. It wasn’t a ball, but it was the one item in the pile that was the exact same size. 

I took the toy, delighted with his selection, and asked him to bring me something that matched the ball. There were balls in the pile, or what I would classify as balls because of their round shape. They were all different sizes, textures and colours to the one I held in my hand.  

Hans searched through the toys and selected an item similar in size to the ball that had the same texture. 

The third time I sent him back, he selected the same colour. 

Repeating this experiment, Hans continued to sort items first by size, then by texture, finally by colour. Shape seemed to be low on his list of priorities. This makes sense when you think about how dogs use their mouths for carrying things. Size and texture are going to be very important when you are picking something up. It can make the difference between something being safe to carry and something that might hurt you. 

This made me realize that dogs think very differently to humans. I know that is self evident, but they’re much better at understanding us than we are at understanding them. Just because we ask for something and get our desired result (the rope toy from a line up of bones) doesn’t mean the dog thinks the rope toy is different to the bones for the same reason we do. It could be the soft rope texture compared to the hard feel of the bone where the items are of comparable size. Maybe it’s the bright multi coloured threads of the rope toy compared to the beige of the bones. 

One great barrier to communicating with dogs is their physiology. Their vocal chords can’t make coherent speech sounds and they lack the flexible tongues of birds that enables avians to talk without teeth or lips. Dog paws aren’t flexible enough to learn complex sign language like apes. 

In her book, Dogs Can Sign Too,  Sean Senechel explains a basic sign language that allows dogs to talk back. 

Her book was a revelation to me and something that I was eager to try with Hans. 

Unfortunately, language training is best modeled with three participants and it was usually just me and Hans at training times. Because the purpose of language is to communicate, having two people and the animal is the best way to develop a working vocabulary, as detailed by Irene Pepperberg in her book, Alex and Me, about her study of African Grey parrots. 

Hans learned the human signs very quickly, and understood them. Learning to make his own signs was much more difficult, both through teaching the concept of him using paw movements to communicate and his physical ability to make the signs. Language sessions were always intense and exhausting, but they produced interesting results and I believe increased Hans intelligence and understanding of the world. 

I only managed to teach Hans a handful of signs. The left forepaw is responsible for food while the right is responsible for objects like toys. The head position indicates names. Hans learned the signs for “food”, “cheese”, “toy”, “ball”, and to refer to himself (so the sign for his name). 

The sign he liked to use most often was food. He loved being able to request food and he always accepted the sign for “food is finished” as a response if he pushed his luck. 

During one session my sister and her three dogs arrived at the house for a visit. Hans was very excited at their arrival and ran over to the door, sniffing at the bottom of the door for a whiff of his friends before running back to me. 

Out of curiosity I signed “what is it?” and indicated his friends who had arrived. Hans paused, clearly thinking deeply, and then he carefully signed “food” followed by “toy”. 

At the time I interpreted this to mean he combined the signs for his two favourite things to make a new sign for his best friends. They were better than food or toys together! However, over the years I’ve wondered if something even more incredible happened with his “Food Toy”.  Could Hans have truly understood language and, given such a tiny vocabulary that in no way could describe “dog” or “visitor” or “friend”, he made up a brand new word? Perhaps it wasn’t that he associated his friends with either food or toy, or that he elevated them to higher importance than both, but that he was using the limited tools at his disposal to describe something – exactly what, I’m not sure – to increase his vocabulary and improve communication. 

Unfortunately, due to the intensity of the sessions and other things going on in my life, I didn’t get to explore canine sign language with Hans as much as I would have liked to. He certainly loved using it and I wish I’d worked on more signs with him. 

I have always wanted an African Grey parrot because of their remarkable intelligence and ability to communicate. Reading Alex and Me increased that desire. Every night when Irene put Alex to bed and said good night, they’d tell each other “I love you”.

It’s hard to know if Alex had the same meaning for those words as Irene. They were a bedtime ritual and maybe had no greater significance than “goodnight” or “see you tomorrow”. However, when I got my Kakariki, I hoped she would learn to say “I love you” and I said it to her often. 

My parrot assistant talked a lot, but she wasn’t great at English. I think she said “what” (obviously the word I say most often), “water” (she was looking for a drink) and responded to my questions a few times with sounds that sounded very like “yes” or “no”. While it happened enough times to be greater than random chance, and the words were always used appropriately to the situation, she didn’t speak English very often. Perhaps, if she’d lived longer, she might have spoken more regularly. Again, it was mostly me with her and my other animals on our own, so not the best way to model language. She certainly never said “I love you”. 

However, I said “I love you” to her a lot, trying to teach her to say it (usually when she was being affectionate and we were cuddling). I noticed that Hans would whine when I’d have these teaching sessions (and only when I focussed on “I love you”) and he would push his head under my hand, seeking my attention. Once I realized there was a pattern to this behaviour and he wasn’t just playing up because I was giving the parrot attention, I tried “I love you” sessions with Hans. Each time he’d whine in a high pitched puppy-like way (I called them bird chirps because they reminded me of the sound young birds make to get food from their parents) and he’d press his head into my body. He seemed to be trying hard to say the words back to me. I realized that the canine inability to talk can be as frustrating to them as it is to us. After that I would take special care to tell Hans that I loved him when we had our cuddle time.

13 thoughts on “If Only They Could Talk”

  1. A fabulous reflection Iseult. I taught my dog a game of hide and seek. He thought it such fun and would laugh! A few hours later I looked out the window and he was on the lawn teaching the game to the neighbour’s puppy!

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  2. Hans was a smart cookie. One thing I find interesting about my dog is her lack of object permanence. She’ll want to go outside, but not if it’s raining. I’ll show her that it’s raining, but when I close the door she doesn’t realize that it’s still raining and will once more beg to go outside.

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    1. Yes, understanding does vary greatly from dog to dog. One fun test is to stand behind a table and drop a treat so it looks like it falls on the floor but actually lands on something soft on the table so it doesn’t make a sound. Even Hans was fooled by this and would sniff the floor. My sister’s setter cross was very clued in to how the world works and always knew the treat was on the table.

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  3. Hans was a very handsome and intelligent dog. All the work you did with him is amazing. I do mental and physical exercises with my 2 year old Border Collie. We’ve named his toys, and if I ask him to bring ‘Giraffe’, will (usually!) do so. This is basic, but I aim to increase the number of toys he can name.
    When I give him an instruction, I try to accompany this with a sign. All work in progress but he’s worth it!

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    1. Thank you, June. Border collies are so bright. Teaching him names of things and using hand signals enriches his life so much, and improves your bound and ability to communicate.

      We celebrated Tigger Tuffnut’s birthday this week. I’ve never formally taught him the names of his toys, but I’ll say “get your toy” or “get pinky (a pink hedgehog)” and he does. He got a ball for a present and ran around the room with it in his mouth. Every time I asked him to squeak the ball, he did, even though this is not something I’ve ever done before. I’m sure it was a coincidence, but it was great timing and the party guests were very impressed! I thought “Tigger Tuffnut is so smart!”


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