Those deeper ways of listening

How humans and animals communicate with each other has more than an edge of mystery to it!

We sleep with our bedroom door open to the main run of the rest of the house. Generally, all six dogs sleep in our bedroom unless it is a very warm night when some of them may choose the cooler tiled surface of the kitchen floor.

Cleo, our female German Shepherd, has a bit of a sensitive stomach and it is not unknown for her to need to be let outside in the middle of the night. Just a couple of nights ago her need for a ‘poo’ break came at 02:40!

But the point of this is that no matter how deeply I am sleeping, all it takes is a short, quiet whimper next to my side of bed and I am instantly awake. I need no time at all to know that Cleo has to be let outside from our bedroom door that opens out onto the deck. A few minutes later I hear her feet padding along the wooden boards of the deck and she is let back in to the bedroom.

Thus this demonstrates how well I understand her and in turn how well she acutely listens to me.

Just look at this photograph.

The connection, the intensity, of her attention towards me. And this was just from me pointing the camera at her and ‘click, clicking’ my tongue.

Moving on!

My introduction today was inspired by an article that I recently read on the Care2 site and that I want to share with you. Here it is.


Can Humans Understand When Animals Are in Distress?

By: Laura Burge   August 13, 2017

About Laura   Follow Laura at @literarylaura

Have you ever jumped at the sound of birds fighting or a squirrel screaming? Heard an animal make a sound somewhere nearby that made your heart race?

More than one hundred years ago, Darwin suggested that there was a universal understanding of certain animal vocalizations — a way of expressing emotion that went all the way back to the Earth’s earliest animals. Now, researchers are re-examining that theory, and they’re making some interesting headway.

In a study published in the journal “Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences,” researchers decided to explore the idea that animal vocalizations, including distress calls, might be recognizable across different species — and even into different animal classes.

Earlier research delved into whether or not humans could detect which emotion, or signal, another mammal was using, but this study is the first to examine other vertebrates as well. Amphibians and reptiles joined the club, and, perhaps surprisingly, humans did pretty well determining what these animals were trying to communicate.

The researchers primarily looked into whether or not people listening to certain animal sounds would be able to detect the level of arousal — high or low — that an animal expressed vocally. High arousal indicates an animal in distress, expressing desperate or negative screams, who might be calling out because of a fight, a predator in the area or another perceived danger. Scientists believe that these sounds are part of an old signaling system.

Researchers asked 75 college-aged individuals to listen to sounds from nine different species. In order to account for language differences, these people included English, German and Mandarin speakers.

Scientists collected 180 recordings of animal vocalizations, reflecting high or low levels of excitement, such as “the sounds of frogs in competition for mates, monkeys reacting to danger or ravens confronted by a dominant bird,” and included humans in that list, instructing actors to react neutrally or with different, heightened emotions while speaking Tamil.

The 75 people were then asked to identify which vocalization out of paired sounds from the same species represented the higher level of arousal.

In this study, the results showed that people identified the correct “emotion,” roughly speaking, better than expected by chance. Here is how the accuracy broke down across species:

  • Humans: 95 percent correct
  • Giant panda: 94 percent correct
  • Hourglass tree frog: 90 percent correct
  • African bush elephant: 88 percent correct
  • American alligator: 87 percent correct
  • Black-capped chickadee: 85 percent correct
  • Pig: 68 percent correct
  • Common raven: 62 percent correct
  • Barbary macaque (monkey): 60 percent correct

It seems strange that people were less able to identify the distress call of a monkey than a frog, but Harold Gouzoules, a bioacoustician and animal behavior expert at Emory University, posits that the monkey calls may have sounded less extreme in intensity than those of the other species, making it harder to tell the difference.

“Our study shows that humans are naturally able to recognize emotional arousal across all classes of vocalizing animals,” said Piera Filippi, who studies the evolution of cognition and communication at the Vrije University Brussels in Belgium.

This doesn’t mean that humans should feel confident in interpreting animal emotions or body language in general, though. Those behaviors can vary greatly, and humans are prone to misinterpretation and anthropomorphism. You wouldn’t, for example, want to assume a wolf baring its teeth is simply smiling at you.

Naturally, much remains to be studied in the effort to understand a wider range of animal emotions. Filippi hopes to repeat the experiment, but with the black-capped chickadees taking the place of the college-aged humans in interpreting the distress calls. It will be interesting to see if this understanding between humans and other animals goes both ways.

Could there be a beneficial reason for animals to understand each other’s distress calls? What do you think?

Photo Credit: Valentino Funghi/Unsplash


Just so long as too many different animals don’t all sound out distress calls at the same time around here!


21 thoughts on “Those deeper ways of listening

  1. Interesting Post. I would agree with being able to know a distress call immediately. It sends a chill of alarm into your heart. I have rescued a few animals after such a call. The most recent was to stop a male swan attacking a juvenile who screamed his alarm. Unfortunately, sometimes I am too late… On one of my pet sitting assignments to look after three gun dogs…one of the dogs running ahead of me across the field caught a rabbit under a hedge. The scream from the poor creature alerted me and I ran urgently to find two of the dogs snapping at the poor rabbit, now badly injured. The dogs looked at me with hung heads…(they were not allowed to hunt, but nature often overwhelmed nurture). The rabbit was young and dying. I instructed the smartest dog, Bentley, to ‘finish it,’ such was my empathy for the poor bunny. It was done in one quick bite… Bentley was very efficient and much better able to do what I or the other dog could not. Bentley understood me completely. We all went home rather quietly together. There was a sense of a sad situation. The dogs picked up on my sorrow and duly felt an understanding that they should act accordingly. I didn’t berate the dogs… in truth I was told that they often ran away to chase rabbits while on walks. The reality of a kill was tough to take.


    1. Colette, what a vivid picture you paint in your wonderful response. Very compelling account of the reality of caring for hunting dogs. Some of the dogs here will chase after the deer that come on to the property. But the deer, thankfully, very quickly learnt the pattern of when our dogs are outside. Plus, the deer can outrun the dogs!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Years living in a ‘recovering’ forest, I find I have gotten to know the normal sounds of my animal, insect and bird neighbours.
    One of the most interesting distress calls I remember was with robins; a pair nested close to the house; one day, the call they made was raw, loud and unusual enough to call me to the porch, along with a dozen or so other robins from the area. It was a call not just of danger, but for help. A big barred owl swooped back and forth across the yard, looking for the nest. The chicks and all the other birds remained silent as the robins dived and swarmed the owl, trying to distract it as it flew back and forth.
    Finally the owl gave up and flew away, with the robins chasing it until it disappeared. By the time they returned, the rest of the forest creatures resumed their normal activities, calls and sounds.
    Nature has so much to teach us, doesn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Another great response! Wow! As with Colette you describe the natural way of things so well. I could hear those robins as I was reading your description of that event.


  3. Yes, there’s always the temptation to sleep with our sweet dogs. But this acute sensitivity is why we don’t. They have comfy beds, but both of us work our bodies hard, day to day. We could never recover without a good night’s sleep. Then they get some bed time with us first thing in the morning, couch time at night 😉 Works for our particular lifestyle. 😉 xo


  4. Great article that gives one time to reflect and absorb, Maybe it’s first time info for some and for probably most of us that follow your blog we are attuned to nature and the pets that we love. As a youngster I learned from living among dogs and cats and the barnyard animals and from the wild creatures in the fields and pasture. I think that if one is a sympathetic by nature then one is more likely to understand what a distress call sounds like. I know when my dogs bark a certain way that they need to go outside in the middle of the night. Cats on the other hand don’t often meow if they are in trouble. They hide sometimes when they are ill. I hear the distressed sounds of birds fairly often if there is a hawk in the trees and I run outside to clap my hands to get the hawk to fly away. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending one’s perspective, there are hawks that nest in my immediate area. I stopped feeding the birds and no longer keep water in the bird bath. I thought it best not to draw the smaller birds in to an easy place to be picked up by a hawk.


    1. That is so true. Including, as you well know, the recognition that the role of non-verbal communications is key. Both us and our beloved dogs ‘say’ so much.


  5. I guess Paul we adapt our hearing to our Animals, just as mothers do to their new babies.. One whimper and we are awake and hovering over them to see if they are ok.. And and interesting post from Laura.. I so dislike hearing animals in distress,, especially if I am unable to help..


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