Skip to main content
Original Issue

A dog not only is man's best friend, it also is his best communicator

If mankind picked pets and animal allies on a strictly utilitarian basis, dogs would not have a chance. Other animals perform services far better. "A bear would make a better guard," says Bil Gilbert in How Animals Communicate (Pantheon, $3.95), "a crow a better sentinel." And apes, monkeys, elephants, whales and raccoons are accounted more intelligent than dogs.

But dogs have one major advantage: they can communicate with men better than any other animal. We tend to think of them as inherently docile, yet "dogs are hot-tempered hunting animals, among the largest and best equipped of the predators...quite capable of killing." In Gilbert's view of the human and animal world, men and dogs are friends and working partners solely "because for centuries we have been able to carry on a long, meaningful, useful conversation." This conversation without words is often one-sided, misunderstood, confused and compounded of growls, barks, tail-waggings, commands to sit and other matters, but it nevertheless serves.

Readers who know Gilbert's brilliant and highly individualized nature essays, such as his story on the fish crow, The Bird, the Vow and the Child (SI, Aug. 30, 1965), are likely to be surprised by his first book. How Animals Communicate is a factual, lucid report on recent scientific discoveries in this realm of animal behavior. It includes Karl von Frisch's epochal 1943 discovery of the language of bees—the dances by which bees communicated the distance from the hive of food—and John Lilly's experiments that began in 1955, designed to establish vocal communications with dolphins "or to prove such communication impossible." In a few passages Gilbert draws on his own extensive experience, which includes trying to train a cheetah, studying hawks and chickadees and raising a rescued fox cub with a litter of German shepherds, but for the most part he keeps himself out of the record. Sometimes you can almost hear the author gritting his teeth in his determination to be scientific and detached, and to avoid charges of exaggeration or sentimentality.

The result is a first-rate introductory volume, lightened with a few casual and personal comments (it would be a more popular work if it included more of the latter). Gilbert differs from most authorities on animal communication in one important particular. He is not greatly impressed by man's communication. In fact, How Animals Communicate makes you realize how much human communication relies on intonations, looks, gestures, outcries, paintings or notes of music and is not dependent on words at all.