A PSYCHOLOGY STUDENT is appealing for dogs and their owners to volunteer for her study in canine communication. Anna Taylor, a DPhil student at Sussex University, is already more than a tenth of the way towards her target, having recorded the growls, barks and yaps of more than 30 canine volunteers.
In the process, she says humorously that she has been nipped by a Staffordshire bull terrier and eyeballed by at least two "pretty monstrous" Rottweilers. "They turned out to be quite friendly but rather intimidating," she admits.
Taylor, based at the Centre for Mammal Vocal Communication Research, wants to know how and why dogs use sound to communicate. Also how domestic dogs differ from wild dogs, working dogs and wolves in that regard.
Wolves, of course, are better known for howling than growling. "They do growl early in their development," Taylor says. "Wolf pups also bark and whimper. But adults don't. It seems that the noises that our domestic dogs make, even when playing, tend to drop out of the wolf's repertoire when fully grown."
In the longer term, she is hoping that her research will feed into a better understanding of vocal communication among canines of all kinds. "There are evolutionary implications in all this, to do with the domestication of the dog and its inextricable link with human beings," says Taylor.
"Co-evolutionary theory suggests that the evolutionary history of humans and dogs is inextricably linked, and it may be that domestic dogs vocalise primarily for their human companions."
"It would be interesting to test this theory, for example, by modifying the recordings then playing them back to humans and other dogs to see how they respond, hopefully showing which acoustic notes are important for which species."
As reported previously to achieve her aim, Taylor is looking for around 300 canine volunteers. "To get a good sample, I'll need dogs of all shapes and sizes," says Taylor. "I'd also like the dogs to be friendly and not adverse to being handled. And above all, they need to be noisy."
She will isolate and analyse growls and other noises made by the dogs in each recording, and will also film, weigh and take head measurements of each dog, to provide valuable data for her investigation. The project is supervised by mammal communication specialists Dr David Reby and Dr Karen McComb.
Taylor said: "For my undergraduate study I completed a final year project in cat purring. After that I went off to study applied animal behaviour which gave me a good understanding of dogs."
She added: "We use all type of techniques to get the dogs to bark and growl including banging on doors and windows, playing with them and isolating them in a room. It's an unusual study but it has been met with quite a lot of interest."
To begin with, Taylor plans to isolate and analyse growls emitted in each recording. Dog growls are made up of sound components called ‘formats’ - which form the basis of vowel sounds in human speech).
These formats are believed to convey a lot of information about the dog making them, including body size, sexual aggressiveness or weight - important information for animals competing for territory, food or a mate.
Taylor will then investigate whether the formats are related to the length of each dog’s vocal tract - the space that runs from the nasal cavities to the larynx in the throat and which produces the formats.
Taylor stresses that her work is still in its early stages. Funding, from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, is available for another two and a half years.
"If the findings are valid, then we'll look for practical applications," she says. "But for now I'm interested in the pure science of it. Most of the research in this area has been about genetics rather than behaviour. It's a huge field, but we've only just got the tools - microphones for recording incredibly high and low registers and computer software capable of representing and analysing those sounds."
Taylor still needs many more owners to bring forward their four-legged friends to have their vocal emissions measured. "They really need to be in the Sussex area," she says, "because I like to visit them at home."
The need for local dogs is a practical one at many levels, not last that when a dog's having its formants measured, it needs to feel comfortable and in familiar surroundings. Formants are the sound components that make up doggie growls. By analysing them, Taylor is hoping to glean information about the animal, including its aggressiveness over food, territory or a mate. "I need dogs that are not too averse to being handled," she says.
Each one needs to be weighed and have its head measured. Taylor needs to investigate whether the formants are related to the length of the vocal tract. "If that turns out to be the case," she says, "it should mean that you should be able to work out a dog's size simply by listening to its growl."
Owners usually claim to be able to recognise the sound of their own dog anywhere, any time. So do they think that their animals are trying to talk to them?
"Yes, they do," Taylor confirms. "And it may be that domestic dogs vocalise primarily for their human companions, unlike wolves, which don't have any companions beyond their own species."
"It would be interesting to test this theory," Taylor goes on, "by modifying the recordings and then playing them back to humans as well as to other dogs, to see how they respond. Hopefully, it would be possible to show which acoustic notes are important for which species."
She is also issuing questionnaires to breed clubs around the world, asking owners to consider what makes their dog bark. Is it the doorbell or the rattle of the food tin?
Taylor concludes: "Owners like to think they know what their dog is saying when it barks. Hopefully, this research will help to reveal scientifically what man's best friend is really communicating."
Dog owners are invited to sign up for the experiment by registering their contact details plus information about the dog's breed, age and sex. Anna Taylor will then advise when a recording session is due.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or register online at http://www.vocaldog.com/ where Miss Taylor’s progress as her research gets underway can also be viewed.