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Saturday, November 17, 2012


Here is another strange tale that comes out of the mysterious era of World War II. Almost seven decades after the war, there exists persistent accounts claiming that the Nazis were building an army of intelligent, talking dogs to defend the Third Reich. They saw in their dogs an ally almost as intelligent as humans. There is some evidence that they gathered “educated” dogs from all over Germany and tried to train them to speak. The goal was to have the dogs work alongside S.S. officers conveying messages, guarding prisoners, and spying on the enemy. 

The German interest in animal intelligence began long before the Nazis however. Early in the 20th Century, a research institute near Munich conducted studies on human-animal communication. They devised various experiments to confirm canine intelligence, including the possibility of mental telepathy between humans and dogs. Many animal psychologists were convinced that dogs were capable of abstract thinking.

In 1905 Germany, Don the Speaking Dog became a sensation. While begging for scraps under the family dinner table, he was allegedly heard to say “Haben! Haben!” (German for “want”) followed by “kuchen” (for cake). He also said “ja” for yes and “nein” for no. Later, Don put together complete sentences that some said were not barks but distinct speech. Another dog, named Rolf (pictured here), also attracted German thinking about animal intelligence. His owner claimed that the dog could communicate by tapping out letters with his paws. Rolf was said to be interested in poetry, mathematics, and philosophy; and even communicated in languages other than German. Rolf once tapped out that he wanted to join the German Army because he hated the French.

During the 1930’s, a “school for talking dogs” was founded in Leutenberg, Germany, called Hundesprechschule Asra. It was founded by Margarethe Schmidt and named after her dog Asra. It wasn’t so much a school as it was a trained animal show. She took her trained dogs around to different towns where they would perform. One person who saw her show claims that the dogs could tell time, describe people, and correct misspellings. One of her dogs was asked who Adolph Hitler was, and is said to have replied, “Mein Fuhrer.” While her dogs tried to vocalize human words, they were more successful in communicating by using a coded system of barks or ringing a bell to get their message understood. 

Now it is well known that Hitler was a dog lover; he had two beloved German Shepherds named Blondi and Bella. He was often pictured with his dogs. He disapproved of hunting and was occasionally a vegetarian. Nazi beliefs advocated the strong bond between man and nature, and specifically with animals. Their regime passed tough animal protection policies. Mistreating your pet could be punishable by two years in jail.

Hitler became aware of the Hundesprechschule and asked Margarethe Schmidt to demonstrate her dogs’ talents for the German military. The show apparently was impressive, and Hitler ordered the S.S. to investigate the potential for training talking dogs to be used in the field. There is no question that the S.S. was looking for military applications.

A 2011 book by scientist and author Jan Bondeson, called “Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities,” includes an in depth examination into the subject of Nazi dog training. In it, Bondeson says, “I’m sure the Nazi generation of animal psychologists genuinely thought they’d tapped into a hidden innate intelligence within many animals. It’s very easy but entirely wrong to mock their findings, as the film footage appears extremely compelling.”

Hundesprechschule Asra became a Nazi-sponsored research center into human-canine communication. There were a few successes, but the goal of creating talking and reasoning dogs fell short. If there was any attempt to create a “super dog” for the war effort, nothing concrete came of it. Bondeson also said, “There is no evidence the work ever actually came to fruition and that the S.S. was walking around with talking dogs.”

So seriously, why were the Nazis unable to get the canines to talk? First, dogs’ vocal mechanisms are not suited for producing human speech. The biology is all wrong. But more importantly, the perception of canine intelligence may be an illusion, or at least over rated. It’s an easy thing to misinterpret. Dogs are overly eager animals that try very hard to please their masters; and we, deep down, want to believe that they understand us and can communicate with us on a level higher than they actually can. Even today, researchers try to teach sign language to chimps with some success but, while they may comprehend meaning, these primates are not able to use language with proper structure.

We can still have fun with this story. Here are parody lyrics to a popular tune of those times (“Don’t Forget to Remember”).

“Talking dogs - a strange find;
what goes through the canine mind?
Largely surveillance was the way to go.
Single syllable words to talk,
training courses the dogs would walk;
then encouraged to tell what they did know.”

It appears that even though Nazi scientists may have tried to create an army of talking, machine-gun carrying dogs, they failed to do so. It was just one more legend from World War II. There was no “Furred Reich.”

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