Human–dog interactions are a great way to demonstrate what I call the behaviour of language: that is, a fundamental difference between human and nonhuman communication and, consequently, between human and nonhuman cognition.
Imagine a situation in which your dog is barking and whining at you (signals) because it wants an item of food that only you can reach. According to this study, the dog’s communicative behaviour is intentional and referential, since the animal tries to get your attention, its gaze alternates between you and the food, and it persists when it does not achieve its goal, for example.
Now, imagine that you swap roles with the dog. This is harder to imagine because we are normally not dependent on dogs for food or other basic needs. However, you would also find yourself producing signals, such as a pointing gesture and the sentence ‘Hey, bring me that food over there!’ Your behaviour can also be said to be intentional and referential (even if a little embarrassing) because it includes attention-getting, gaze alternation, elaboration and all the other criteria used in the above study. However, unless your dog is trained, you will probably not get the food and be quite frustrated.
This frustration reveals that the way in which humans communicate with dogs and, of course, other humans, has to do with our control over them. Indeed, getting a human to bring you food is like training a dog to fetch: you do not just signal persistently, looking for their understanding that you want food. Rather, you give them an incentive to respond appropriately to your signals, such as money or another food item in return. To this end, your ability to keep this individual, human or not, physically with you obviously helps.
Thus, even if the dog in the study appears to want you to get the food, its focus is not on you as a receiver of signals; its focus is on the food and on you as a helper. The dog merely tries to get you to react (not respond) to the stimulus of food (saying that it gets you to respond would confuse the food with a signal). The dog is using those signals ‘descriptively’ to refer to a state of reality, e.g. ‘I am here’, ‘there is food over there’, ‘I want it’. Even if its signalling behaviour reflects the dog’s intentions or goal, the signals come after or are subordinate to this goal or intentions.
On the other hand, your focus on signals and responses means that your signalling is prescriptive, i.e. your signs and symbols come before (prescribe: prae + scribere) the act of fetching. Unlike the dog, you try to establish a signal–response relationship whereby a certain expression or gesture will cause a cooperative dog to fetch something for you. The dog cannot do the same with you.
In light of this analysis, it can be seen why I call prescription the behaviour of language. The reason why you can speak with a human or, to some extent, with a dog is that these receivers are attuned to you after thousands of years of prescriptive interactions. They ‘know’ that they will be rewarded for paying attention to your signals and figuring out what you mean. This explains why our theory of mind and complex expressions such as ‘Hey, bring me that food over there!’ evolved only in humans.
On the other hand, theorists focus erroneously on cognition and the ‘language of behaviour’: the dog’s efforts above feel like he’s talking to you; his behaviour is like a language. This motivates theorists to study dogs’ and apes’ ability to share meaning or information, picturing (human) language and society as having evolved from this psychological ability. To quote the same study, the authors are interested in whether the ‘dog’s behaviors are based on simple mechanisms or on a theory of mind about their owners’.
Thus, if we could establish that the dog ascribes mental states to you (theory of mind) then we could speak of human-like communication in dogs, if not language. We could picture the dog potentially understanding your spoken instructions to bring you food without the need for training, in the same way that you understand the dog’s more simple vocalisations and your ape ancestors understood their peers’. Natural selection (rather than artificial selection and training) would have shaped the dog’s ability to connect its mind to yours, as it were, and share a mental representation of food with you.
In this view, the intentional control of responses I call prescription does not appear relevant, if it is considered at all. Provided that the required socio-cognitive environment ‘evolved’, any animal could begin to communicate as humans do. Imagine, for instance, that the dog begins to tell you about food for the sake of informing you, without expecting you to respond and about food that is not immediately present. Imagine this ‘food’ he is talking about does not even exist but the dog insists that you respond to his call ‘for your own good’. Imagine that he begins to combine these calls to refer to an indefinite number of foods he would like to taste…
Of course, these and other exclusive features of language appear to exist only in humans, who also happen to be the only animals who prescribe. Only humans can train dogs to fetch or get frustrated with children who do not behave as told (i.e. who do not respond to signals, as opposed to merely following norms or expectations). This involves an ability to use signals primarily to command action and, secondarily, to refer to an object. The referent does not need to be present. The referent ‘food’ is a concept that the signaller may or may not apply to a perceived object and that cannot be shared with species that do not prescribe, no matter how much their minds may connect with ours.
(More information about the cognitive aspects of prescription can be found in my original research paper.)