From Woofs to Words: Pet Translation Device Is Just Around the Corner

Nevena Nacic
by Nevena Nacic

What would be the first thing you’d ask your dog if they could talk instead of barking? If dogs talked you could learn how much your pooch loves you, or maybe you’d be more interested to know why Fido peed on the carpet, again.

Unfortunately, this level of conversation is unlikely to happen any time soon. But recent advances in artificial intelligence and speech and translation technology may bring us one step closer to conversing with our pets.

Thanks to AI, scientists are figuring out how to translate animals’ facial expressions and vocalizations into a language understandable to people. In recent years, scientists have been using AI systems to analyze a sheep’s face to determine whether an animal is in pain, and another one is being used to listen to the communication calls of marmoset monkeys.

Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, an animal behaviorist and professor of biology at Northern Arizona University is an expert on animal communication. 

Slobodchikoff has spent 30 years trying to better understand the calls of prairie dogs. Together with a computer scientist colleague, he developed an algorithm that translates the vocalizations of prairie dogs into English. 

“I thought, if we can do this with prairie dogs, we can certainly do it with dogs and cats,” said Slobodchikoff according to NBC News

Slobodchikoff imagined a cell phone app or device that you could point to a dog to record a video and audio of a dog’s behavior and then upload it for an AI system to analyze. “The AI would translate this for you into English, or any other language,” explained Slobodchikoff. 

The translation, Slobodchikoff said, could be something like ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I need to go outside to pee’ or ‘I want to go for a walk.’

To teach an AI algorithm about the nuances of canine communication, Slobodchikoff collected thousands of videos of dogs showing various types of body movements and different types of barks. 

For this to work, Slobodchikoff has to explain to the AI algorithm what each bark and tail wag means. This means that, at this stage, scientists must provide explanations of canine body language and vocalization, which gives room to individual interpretation. 

However, Slobodchikoff strives to include the growing scientific research that uses data gained from actual experiments rather than guesswork to interpret the true meaning of canine behavior.

Being able to understand what dogs are saying would help owners forge stronger bonds with their pets, but also much more. It would make caring for dogs much easier and also help save lives.

According to ASPCA, around 920,000 cats and dogs are euthanized each year in the U.S. alone - in many cases, because of misunderstood behavioral problems. For example, a dog that exhibits aggressive behavior might simply be afraid or anxious, and if there was a device to help us understand its fears, it might be possible to help that dog and save its life. 

“You could use that information and instead of backing a dog into a corner, give the dog more space,” said Slobodchikoff.

Keeping track of the advances made in this field, an Amazon-sponsored report on future trends predicted that we’ll have commercial pet translators in the next 10 years. 

Even if pet translators become a reality, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to have a real conversation with our pets. But, with the help of this new technology, owners would be able to understand how their dogs feel, including if they are in pain or sick, and what makes them happy or sad.

Although more research is needed, we are one step closer to translating barks.

Nevena Nacic
Nevena Nacic

Nevena is a freelance writer and a proud mom of Teo, a 17-year-old poodle, and Bob, a rescued grey tabby cat. Since childhood, she had a habit of picking up strays and bringing them home (luckily, her parents didn't know how to say NO). When she's not writing for her fellow pet parents, Nevena can be found watching Teo sleep. To her defense, that's not as creepy as it sounds!

More by Nevena Nacic