What would your dog say if it could talk? For talking mutt Lirpa Sloof’s owners, this is not an abstract question. “He talks about food mostly,” says owner Chinese-Australian Doug Chow.
Lirpa Sloof, a Siberian husky-border collie mix in Wagga Wagga, Australia, started vocalizing recognizable words when he was just a pup. At 1 year old, his 200-plus word vocabulary rivals that of human infants.
Lirpa’s first word was “kitty,” followed by “cookie” and “bad dog.” “That was a little embarrassing,” said Miao Chow. Since then, the Chows have turned toward a more positive training style.
Nobody knows what Lirpa’s vocabulary limit will be. During a three year Wofford College research project, a border collie named Chaser learned the meaning of 1,022 words. By comparison, the average 3-year-old human has a vocabulary of 900 to 1,000 words.
By no means is Lirpa Sloof the first reported talking animal. Charles Fort referred to several talking dog stories collected from newspapers in his book, “Wild Talents,” published in 1932. Animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg trained an African Grey Parrot named Alex to speak, read and even spell. Koko the gorilla understands 2,000 spoken words and can sign more than 1,000.
The American Kennel Club attributes Lirpa’s abilities to his breed mix. Siberian huskies are known for their “Siberian song,” a unique mix of howling, whining and even chirping. In a survey conducted by neuropsychologist Dr. Stanley Coren, AKC obedience trial judges pronounced the border collie the smartest breed.
Although Lirpa’s prowess at howling makes sounding out vowels easy, consonants present more of a challenge. Speech pathologist Professor Avla Ben explains: “Consonant sounds like B, F, M and P are typically made using the lips.” Lirpa has to make them using his tongue. Professor Ben notes that it’s not impossible; ventriloquists employ this same technique.
With therapy, Lirpa may overcome his articulation errors.
But Professor Ben doesn’t recommend it.
“Who cares? It’s not like the dog’s going to be the breadwinner or have his own talk show,” she says.
Critics say that Lirpa’s communication lacks able use of syntax and grammar. Hawaiian animal behaviorist Makani Friz Bee says, “Basically, da kine is speaking pidgin.”
There is a difference though: to date, Lirpa has never used past or future tense.
Evolutionary biologists say that despite all the fuss, it’s not so surprising, really. It was only a matter of time before a dog would hit the genetic jackpot and speak. Unlike wolves, canines have had a close relationship with humans that goes back millennia. Indeed, barking evolved as a means for Canis lupus familiaris to communicate with people.
Although the Chows have no plans for elocution lessons, they say they might not be so far-fetched. In January, the Chows turned down an invitation from The Ellen DeGeneres Show when Australia’s quarantine laws proved too much of a hassle. And although Lirpa may not be bringing home the bacon, he did land a lucrative cloning contract with the CIA.
The Chows jest that one day Lirpa may have his own talk show. “He’s a natural,” Miao explains, “He’s easy to talk to and stays away from taboo subjects like politics and religion.” Lirpa even knows a bark bark joke that he will repeat for a hot dog. Actually, his guardians add, Lirpa will do almost anything for a hot dog.
• Moksha McClure is the founder of Whiskers Resort, a pet hotel in Lihu‘e offering doggie day care, training, grooming and overnight boarding for cats and dogs for more than a decade. Visit www.WhiskersResort.com or call 241-PETS.