Aug. 6, 2009 -- Yesenia Aceves, a self-avowed dog lover, says she can tell what her Italian greyhounds want by listening to their barks. But even she isn't buying -- literally or figuratively -- a newfangled dog collar that claims to figure out on its own what Fido is trying to say.
Later this month, TakaraTomy, a Japanese toy company, will release in Japan the Bowlingual Voice dog collar. The device includes a microphone worn around a dog's neck and a separate digital reader that -- the company says -- translates barks into one of six emotional states: happy, sad, frustrated, threatening, needy or assertive.
But dog owners such as Aceves are having a tough time believing it will work.
"Since I have personally trained [my dogs] according to the different sounds that they make, I don't know that I would really trust the collar's telling me what they want," said Aceves, 30, of San Diego. "I don't feel like all dogs do the exact same bark."
Some experts say that dog barks can't even be translated into human words.
'Cute,' but Can It Work?
"It's a cute idea," said Kathryn Lord, a doctoral candidate in organismic and evolutionary biology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. "But it's hard to see the world or feel the world like they do. When we say a dog feels something, it's probably not exactly that."
The Japan Acoustics Laboratory, according to a press release, provided "research and development and consulting as well as aiding speech, acoustics and radio waves" for the Bowlingual Voice's creation. The firm says the device provides spoken "translations" of the barks of up to five dogs at a time.
And, along with the translation function, the device includes some amusing, if basic, tools for owners, such as a planning schedule, a quiz on dog facts and a guide to interpreting dogs' body language.
Scientists' Involvement Doesn't Sway Skeptics
The Bowlingual Voice, for now, is not for sale west of Tokyo. List price: 19,950 yen (roughly $220 U.S.).
The involvement of the scientific community has not quieted the skeptics -- scientists and dog-owning citizens among them.
One such skeptic is Melissa Reinckens, a lawyer in New York City, who thinks it would be cool to communicate with her dogs. But she said she finds the TakaraTomy's claims laughable.
"I don't doubt that there are a range of emotions," said Reinckens, 30. "But a mood ring? Come on."
Why Do Dogs Bark?
Despite the skepticism, experts agree that humans are interested in communicating with their pets.
"We're fascinated with the idea of being able to talk to animals. It's a human myth perhaps as old as we are," said Christie Keith, lead science editor for PetConnection.com. "But it's very crude and simplistic."
At the root of this curiosity, animal behaviorists say, is a range of varying and often misinformed ideas about the purpose of a dog's bark. One of the biggest areas of debate, said Kathryn Lord, is whether a dog barking is at all equivalent to human speech.
Lord, who co-authored a paper earlier this month examining the purpose and mechanism of a dog's bark, says that a bark's varying pitch, tone, volume and speed have "led to the idea that dogs were especially evolved to communicate with humans," when, in fact, "the bark itself is not especially evolved to communicate with us -- it's an attention-getting sound.
"Rather than a, 'Hey, it's a snake,'" she said, "It's a, 'Hey, look over here,' so everyone just looks. It's probably not referential," meaning it doesn't get a singular response in the animal world. "Our paper basically said that, OK, there is a function [to the barking], but the function is ancestral.''
To illustrate her point, Lord cites the example of monkeys in the wild who make a unique noise to signal to one another the presence of eagles overhead. On the contrary, Lord says, dogs bark to convey "internal feelings rather than a specific message."
Additionally, said Dr. Rolan Tripp of AnimalBehavior.net, because dogs are roughly at the emotional level of toddlers, "translating" their barks wouldn't actually provide much insight into their mental makeup.
So a device like the Bowlingual Voice, said Tripp, doesn't mark a breakthrough in our understanding of dogs.
"If you could hear from your 3-year-old every time they utter a sound," he said, "would you want to be interrupted at work for that?"