Trans-Iberian

Trans-Iberian

Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Speaking doggedly

Por: | 28 de enero de 2014

Following Laura Edgecumbe’s blog about the pet blessing in San Lorenzo de El Escorial (below), it seems that from the perspective of dogs, you may soon know exactly how your pampered pooch feels about participating in such an event. According to a recent article in El País, Scandinavian researchers are developing a gadget that can translate the thoughts of dogs into human language. Could this mean that, in future, man’s best friend may beg for nothing, and simply ask instead?

I blame Pavlov. He was the one who started dragging dogs into the laboratory and conditioning them. By conditioning, we’re talking in a scientific context, rather than giving them a quick shampoo and trim. Nevertheless, dogs that were previously happy just to take a walk, fetch a stick and provide some affection, were suddenly being investigated. Our curiosity, and no doubt their irritation, has never looked back.

The new device, which is a headset, uses sensors to monitor the bioelectric activity in a dog’s brain, so at least you won’t have to teach your pet any new tricks. After the gadget interprets a dog’s thoughts, an interface converts them into words, which are then voiced through a small loudspeaker.  The prototype works with simple expressions, so if you are currently watching your faithful hound scratching its ear or chasing its tail, don’t panic. The invention doesn’t mean that tomorrow you’ll be sweating over the intellectual challenge of responding to his thinking about the works of Nietzsche or Plato. But by taking the lead with the technology, is it a step in the right direction or, for want of a better expression, should we let sleeping dogs lie?

Whether in Spain or the UK, dogs show the same outstanding qualities: loyalty, affection, trust, and always eager to please or listen. In fact, all of the qualities that disappear from a human relationship within… well, you could complete your own time period here, but in a worse case scenario it could be thirty minutes. However, if your dog can answer back or give an opinion, life may change. EP_sheepdog_spilltojill
"Shall we discuss Nietzsche, or share some biscuits?"              Photo Flickr (CC): spilltojill

The patterns of activity that the headset can distinguish are basic sensations like tiredness, hunger, anger and curiosity. Tiredness, for example, may bring fetching a stick into question. If, when training your dog for that task, he had just sat on the grass and said, “I’m tired”, would the enjoyment have been removed? It may only be a few years down the line until you hear “You threw the stick. Fetch it yourself.” Your dog may already indicate when he’s hungry by staring at a tin of dog food, but voicing his thoughts could make feeding a problem. Questions such as “Is there any sauce with this?” or “What’s for dessert?” could arise, and that’s just for regular mongrels. Owners of pedigree dogs could face being asked for hors d’oeuvres and the wine list.

Perhaps anger is the biggest risk. With pet grooming parlours and little knitted jackets for our canine friends, comments like “Do you really expect me to go out looking like this?” may become commonplace. Curiosity could be even worse. Quite how long your pooch would remain your best friend if he can ask “If that’s your partner, who was the other person you brought home yesterday night?” remains to be seen.

Apparently, the researchers are still working on the sound of the voice and looking to provide alternatives for the breed and character of your dog. My feeling is that the accent for Irish Wolfhounds, German Shepherds and Yorkshire Terriers would be a forgone conclusion. Assumedly, a Husky demands to be husky, and every Old English Sheepdog should greet you with “Good morning, old chap. Fancy a quick cup of tea?”, ideally whilst wearing a bowler hat.

The headset should be available soon, with further developments planned. Your first question, having fitted the device, is likely to be “There! What do you think about that?” which may prove to be anything but rhetorical. Of course, as humans, we can have a healthy exchange of views, or as it’s commonly known, an argument. If technology takes us to the point when you can have the same with your dog, the only distinction between man and beast may be the action of last resort - the capability to throw the crockery. Will your dog still have a role to play? We can’t stop progress, and the biggest curiosity about canine communication will certainly be ours. We’d love to know what’s on our dog’s mind, and responses like “Yeah, I know how you feel”, “Don’t worry, I’m still here”, or “It’s not as bad as you think” may prove irresistible. So, no matter how much technology develops, I think there’ll be life in the old dog yet.

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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