Surprise, Surprise: Bowlingual Doesn't Work… Or Does It?

from the took-'em-long-enough-to-test dept

Stories about the Bowlingual dog translation device always seem to get a lot of attention at Techdirt, so how could we pass this one up. Found over at Gizmodo is the story of a vet (gasp!) actually testing out the Bowlingual and discovering it works about as well as you would expect – in other words, not at all. Update: Just as I finished writing up this post, I came across a different article of someone testing the bowlingual where it seems to make a little more sense. Of course, they admit that it’s kind of like a Magic 8 Ball: if you believe in it, the words it gives your dog will kind of make sense some of the time. In other words, the results it spews are often so ambiguous that they’re going to appear to make sense – but it’s highly unlikely the device has any real clue about what your dog is trying to say.

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Comments on “Surprise, Surprise: Bowlingual Doesn't Work… Or Does It?”

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Willie says:

Bow-Lingual Articles


Thought you might be interested in seeing these pieces about the Bow-Lingual.

Mark Patinkin: Can we talk?

A skeptical dog owner gets the message

The Providence Journal
Thursday, September 18, 2003

My dog Jasper is frustrated. To use his exact words, “I can’t get my point across.”

I know that’s what he said because I am holding a device that’s about to make me one of the first humans to understand another species.

A dog translator.

Fine, smirk, but Japan’s Takara company swears it’s not a gimmick — it costs $120 and was developed by an acoustics expert involved in authenticating Osama bin Laden tapes. He worked for years with animal behaviorists mapping voice prints of barks and discerning their meaning. The result: attach a mic to your dog’s collar, and a receiver the size of a walkie-talkie will tell you what he’s saying.

It’s called a Bow-Lingual, and I’ll tell you why I’m the perfect person to test this.

Mine is one of those tedious dog-owning families that spends half our time rushing into the room when someone says: “Quick, Jasper’s doing his happy roll.” Or, “Check out Molly; she’s curled up so cute.”

In truth, Molly is a homely little beagle mix who is devoted to us but hates other dogs, including Jasper, whom she does not let us pet. She mostly glares, which the Bow-Lingual does not translate.

So I started with Jasper. He can be easily goaded to bark, especially in the area of stick-throwing, where he has obsessive-compulsive disorder.

He’s a collie-Lab, so I keyed the device to “Mixed/Other, Large, Long-Nosed,” and put it to “Bark Translation Mode.”

As I ushered the dogs outside for a test, I thought of my discussion with Willie Norkin, spokeswoman for Takara, who said the device is 94 percent accurate.

She told me that after analyzing 83 breeds and 5,000 barks, Dr. Matsumi Suzuki found dogs have six different emotions. Sounds like more than most men.

Willie Norkin does not joke about the Bow-Lingual. She said it categorizes the voice-print of each bark by emotion, then matches it with one of 200 programmed phrases.

Men, said Norkin, tend to ask if they can bark into the microphone and get a translation. It doesn’t work that way; it’s only accurate with dog barks. Women, apparently don’t ask this.

So here I was, with my 9-year-old son, Zach, about to test the translator, and with due respect to Dr. Suzuki, I assumed I would prove it didn’t work. How could it possibly?

Jasper burst outside, bounded in a circle and barked.

“Receiving . . . ” said the Bow-Lingual. “Analyzing . . . Analysis Complete.”

The translation popped up:

“I feel great.”

I charged inside to find my wife, who’d declared this whole thing absurd, reading the paper.

“It worked,” I shouted. “He said ‘I feel great.’ “

“Do me a favor,” said my wife.

“Report the next translation?”

“No. Fix the toilet in the basement. I can hear it running.”

I went back outdoors. Zach asked if he could bark into it. I told him to quit messing around. This was serious.

At that, Molly, the younger dog, began wrestling with Jasper, biting the scruff of his neck. He hates that.

He barked.

Receiving . . . Analyzing . . . Translation: “Don’t you know how frustrated I am?”

I ran back inside. “It worked again,” I told my wife.

“This is really scary,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “It’s so accurate.”

“No. You’re scary.”

“I’m going back out.”

A moment later, I came back to report.

“Get this. He puts a stick at my feet, daring me to throw it — and guess what he says?”

” ‘My owner needs a life?’ “

“No. He says, ‘You’re not so tough.’ It works.”

I could barely contain myself. I was communicating with one of God’s non-human creatures.

“What do you think he’ll say next?” I asked.

” ‘Go fix the toilet’?”

Outside, I threw the stick, and he barked as he charged after it.

Translation: “Yeah, baby.”

I told my wife, knowing this would prove it to her. This time, she just eyeballed me over the newspaper.

I spent the next hour or so with the translator.

At one point, Molly again began biting Jasper’s neck.

His translated response: “Enough’s enough.”

She wouldn’t quit. He barked a second time:

Translation: “Careful who you mess with.”

Later, I held up the stick but refused to throw it. He got peeved and let me know it.

Translation: “C’mon, play with me.” I still wouldn’t throw. “Just listen to me,” he said. I continued to hold back the stick. He barked again: “Can’t you hear me?”

Finally, I threw it. Right hand to God, the translation came out as, “We’re having fun now.”

I charged inside to tell my wife.

“The toilet’s still running,” she responded.

Later, a Journal photographer came by. I let the dogs out for their portrait. Jasper eyeballed the cameras and barked.

Translation: “Take your best shot.” If you don’t believe me, ask Steve Szydlowski, the photographer.

Here’s the ultimate. Like I said, Molly doesn’t bark much, so we wasted hours wiring her up with no result. But we did get one. Remember, she hates other dogs.

She was staring through the storm door when a dog walked by and marked our curb while looking right at her.

Molly exploded, her teeth clicking against the glass.

Translation: “I don’t like you either.”

Of course, I realize this was all coincidence. It’s not possible to translate barking into English.

If you want to discuss it, I’ll be at home conversing with my dogs.

Mark Patinkin can be reached at

September 28, 2003

The bowlingual

By Mary Esparra
(with Dixie Esparra)
Times Herald-Record

Listen to the audio:
Dixie barking at doorbell said:
“I’m the boss … sometimes.”

Dixie saw people in the backyard through the glass doors, and barked:
“Careful who you mess with!” “Just listen to me!”

When I was a little girl, I’d ask my mom why my animals couldn’t talk to me. I’d talk to them all the time (OK, I still do), but they wouldn’t talk back.
I’d always get the same reply from her: “When you’re in heaven, you can get anything you want. Your animals will talk to you then.”
Well, heaven came ahead of schedule.
Who but those masters of high-tech gadgetry, the Japanese, could invent a device that turns your dog’s barks, growls and groans into actual words on a hand-held remote with a screen? They call it: “Bow Lingual.”
Bow Lingual consists of a hand-held unit with a display, similar to a Gameboy, and a small wireless microphone with transmitter that attaches to the dog’s collar.
What would my Dixie say to me now that she could “talk?”
– She’d complain about being left alone all day with two cats.
– She’d apologize for getting me up five times one night when I fed her too much leftover chicken.
– She’d beg me for more rawhides and to stop buying cheap, by-the-pound dog biscuits.
– She’d tell me of all the aches and pains of a 12-year-old German shepherd.
– And she’d tell me she loved me.
People in the newsroom laughed and gave me that “you are just too gullible” stare when I showed them the Bow Lingual.
We decided to put this $198…. device to the test. Staffers with dogs ranging from a poodle to a Great Dane to a black Lab volunteered to try it on their pooches.
And, of course, I had to test it out on my Dixie.
I’m taking a huge chance on large-scale ridicule here, but I have to admit: Bow Lingual is not actually heaven, but it does seem to work.
Here’s how it worked for me:

The knock-at-the-door and steak tests
To get Dixie to “talk,” my son pretended to be a stranger at the door. But Dixie had seen him walk out, so when I said, “Who’s there?” she ran around the room panting and whining. The Bow Lingual read: “I’m confused.” Hmph.
Next test: My kids snuck out the back door, went around the building, and a few minutes later knocked on the front door. I yelled again, “Who’s there?” They knocked harder and yelled (in disguised voices) that they were robbers coming to get me.
I acted scared and yelled at Dixie to “Go see!” (my command for her to go check out the thing that’s making Mom freak out).
She ran to the door and barked. The remote read: “I’m strong, are you?” Freaky, but what is more astounding is that we repeated this test the next day with a different person knocking, and she said the same thing.
Dinner time: The smell of steak broiling would make any dog “speak.”
I held a piece of steak in my hand, just out of her reach and stared at her. (I never do this; I’m such a dog spoiler, throwing her scraps as I eat.)
Picture it. A dog and a piece of hot, juicy steak just out of reach.
The remote read: “I wish you’d make sense.”

Size doesn’t matter
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but my 70-pound shepherd seems to be infatuated with a seven-pound schnauzer.
When Dixie met the newest canine addition to the neighborhood, Max Lewis, she quickly proclaimed:
“I love you,” the screen read, followed by “I’m gorgeous” and “Just listen to me.” I guess Max was playing hard to get, because Dixie ended the encounter with, “Get out of here.”
Next on the lawn came Hercules Cambareri, a 15-pound male dachshund who claims to be King of the Neighborhood. Dixie attempted to dethrone this pint-sized ruler.
“Careful who you mess with,” she warned. “Go ahead, make my day.” And, I don’t know where she got this from, but I was tempted to wash her mouth out with doggie shampoo: “#$X&’*?)!!!!!!”

Other features
The device also has a mode on body language, MBF Score (man’s best friend), barking history and a home-alone feature.
The home-alone feature is a heart-breaker. You program it for how many hours you’ll be gone, and it remembers the number and types of barks. Dixie’s score: 5 frustrated, 2 on guard, 1 assertive, 0 needy, happy or sad. I won’t be using that feature again.

What I learned
All in all, I found the Bow Lingual to be eerily on the money most of the time, but there were times when she barked and nothing registered. It works somewhat like a cell phone; there are dead areas and areas with interference, so sometimes it will read that she’s barking when she’s not, and vice versa.
The sound of Dixie crunching on a rawhide was a good opportunity to tape record her sounds for our Web site.
But, after three days of following her around with the remote and recording device in hand, urging her to bark at everything that moved, Dixie wanted no more of Bow Lingual.
“Enough is enough,” she said. “Get out of here.”
Besides learning Dixie has a crush on a schnauzer, the only other thing I learned about her is that we didn’t need this gadget to communicate after all. I always knew that when she paced, she had to go out. When she barked loud, an intruder was near. When she panted for more than a minute, her water bowl was empty.
And I always knew that when she licked my face and laid her head on my lap, she was telling me she loved me.

More tails
We tried Bow-Lingual on a few other pups:

Digger’s got issues
My dog is jealous. I always suspected it but I never knew for sure. Now I do. How do I know? He told me.
Here’s the deal. My husband, Anthony, and I own an adorable mini apricot poodle named Digger. Digger is obedient, smart and the joy of our lives. Unlike most poodles, he rarely barks. However, we can always expect a few yelps when my husband and I smooch. During these bizarre moments, we’ve always wondered what he was barking about. Was he happy? Did he feel left out? Was he confused?
Well, we wonder no more. After clipping the Bow-Lingual to his collar and testing the toy, both my husband and I were shocked to find out he is actually jealous when we lock lips. Apparently, our spoiled “baby”‘ demands all the attention – all the time.
I’m not really sure if I believe the Bow-Lingual. It does seem to make sense, but there were a couple of times when Digger didn’t bark, yet the toy’s screen registered the “I’m jealous” response anyway.
Regardless, if my dog is jealous then I have to say I’m more than happy he can’t talk to me about it. There is nothing worse than a spoiled child who complains, except maybe a spoiled dog that complains.
Caitlin Ingrassia

Angus the Potty Mouth
Kids on bikes really irritate my dog.
I always suspected as much. He does, after all, run after them, barking furiously. But now, with the help of Bow-lingual, I was able to know for sure what Angus was saying.
It wasn’t pretty. And it can’t be printed in a family paper. But not all that surprising, after all.
Which pretty much sums up my experience with this new techno gadget that purports to translate your dogs barks and growls into words.
Here’s how it went:
Someone’s at the door, pounding. Angus barks.
Translation: I’m on guard.
My husband calls Angus from one end of the driveway while I hold him in another. Angus whines and barks.
Translation: I’m frustrated.
Night sounds – from nocturnal animals? – float in through the bedroom window. Angus cocks his head, whines, whoofs softly.
Translation: I’m confused.
So while the kids got a real kick out of it (especially when it translated my overly loud husband as insisting “I am strong!”), I wasn’t that shocked by the translations we were getting. Accurate, yes. Surprising, no.
Except that part about him being a potty mouth. I wonder where he gets that from …?
Laura Dolce

Gabriella the Great
As far as Gabriella the Great Dane and I are concerned, this Bow Lingual device is barking up the wrong tree. Gabby is far more intuitive and communicative than this contraption gave her credit for. And I understand her.
As a rule, Gabby doesn’t bark a lot. Of course, shortly before I had the Bow Lingual in hand, she barked her warning bark for about 15 minutes. This was clearly the you’re-home-alone-and-I-need-to-protect-you bark. Protect you from the deer. And the wind. And my imagination.
I got another good backyard bark while she had her collar on. However, Bow Lingual was silenced by a dead battery. Finally, we got the red light on the microphone portion around Gabby’s neck. I said, “Go get ’em, Gabby,” as we went outside. She gave two excited barks. The interpretation? “You won’t believe how frustrated I am.”
No way. It was a playful bark. I’ll even grant you that she might have been confused by my words. But frustrated? Nope. Danes are known for their ability to vocalize, and keep in mind that you program the breed into the computer. Throughout the evening, she’d make a little noise here and there. The computer would randomly spew out: “I can’t get my point across.” “Enough is enough.” “Something is bothering me.” “Repeating yourself doesn’t help.” (Don’t you have to say something before you can be accused of repeating yourself?) And the computer repeated itself by flashing again: “Repeating yourself doesn’t help.” But the clincher for me was when my daughter came home. As Jessica came through the door, Gabby barked, as she frequently does to us. Its Bow Lingual meaning? “I might bite.”
Deborah J. Botti

Copyright Orange County Publications, a division of Ottaway Newspapers Inc., all rights reserved.

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