At home with bowlingual

Like most dog owners, Keiko Egawa thought she understood her dog pretty well.

When Harry, a 7 year-old, 37-kilogram Alaskan Malamute barked, growled or whimpered, Egawa could usually figure out what he wanted or was trying to communicate to her but she was never completely sure. So last year when Takara Co. Ltd. began offering a device that supposedly interprets what a dog is saying, she jumped at the chance to try it.

She was not alone. More than 300,000 people in Japan have bought the ¥14,800 (US$123) Bowlingual since it first went on sale in September last year and things have gone so well that it will soon be launched in the U.S. and South Korea.

"I wanted to talk or understand a lot more," said Egawa of the reason she got a Bowlingual. It consists of two parts, a microphone and transmitter that is worn around the dog's neck on its collar and a handheld receiver unit, which gets data from the microphone and attempts to work out what the dog is saying.

The system works by analyzing and classifying a dog's emotion into one of six main categories, which are sad, frustrated, needy, happy, self-expressive and on guard, said Kennedy Gitchel, a spokesman for Takara in Tokyo. Within those categories there are a number of set phrases of which the Bowlingual chooses one at random.

To be sure, owners shouldn't expect the device to turn their dogs into a modern day equivalent of Lassie. Unlike the star of the 1950s TV show that used to be able to convey in a few barks something like "Come quick, Timmy's fallen down old-man Thompson's well again," you are much more likely to get something along the lines of "I want food" or "Get out of my face."

Simple as these phrases may be, Takara says it's all based on research the company has done with a local acoustics lab and researchers in animal behavior. Egawa says more often than not she is convinced her Bowlingual is in tune with Harry's feelings.

"I think it is correct about 70 percent of the time. The rest of the time maybe it is correct but I am not entirely sure," she said. Egawa finds is most useful around the home. "I can understand what he feels or what he wants to say without having to see his face. Before we go to the park he always says he wants to play and after a walk he always says he is hungry."

The U.S. version of Bowlingual is scheduled to be launched in August and it should hit South Korean shelves two months earlier. It will cost around US$120, said Takara's Gitchel.

The company has high expectations for its sale in the U.S., where the dog population is estimated at somewhere between 60 million and 70 million compared to around 10 million in Japan. When it launched in Japan it sold out on day one and received extensive local media coverage. It was also named one of the coolest gadgets of the year by Time Magazine and won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize -- one of a number of Ig Nobel prizes that are awarded each year to inventions that first make people laugh and then make them think.

Egawa says she still hasn't decided if having the Bowlingual is good for Harry. "When you understand a dog and know their feelings you want to listen and react to them. But if you adore them too much they think they are more powerful than the owner and that is bad. I think the biggest problem is that I react to him more."

She also admitted to one other nagging problem every time she takes Harry outside and uses the Bowlingual. "When people see me, I am always wondering if they are thinking, wow, there is really someone who would go out and buy that."

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Martyn Williams

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