Talking pets have been the darlings of social media recently. The trend started after Christina Hunger, a speech pathologist, made headlines when she adapted techniques she used with children to teach her dog, Stella, to communicate.
Stella, and now hundreds of dogs and cats, use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) to “talk” with the humans in their lives. AAC takes the form of buttons affixed to a soundboard. When the pet presses a button, it plays a recording of a word, such as “hungry,” “outside,” “water,” or “play” — whatever has been recorded.
Viola! A talking animal! Or is it? Are these animals really using language? One scientist aims to find out.
Federico Rossano is not on social media, so he missed the excitement about talking buttons. However, some of his colleagues had heard of them and suggested Rossano study the phenomenon.
Rossano is a linguist and cognitive scientist at the University of California San Diego and director of the Comparative Cognition Lab there, where he studies communication and cognition in humans as well as other animals. Rossano responded by emailing his colleagues four papers showing why animal language studies were a dead end.
Previous studies (mostly with nonhuman primates) attempting to teach animals human language are now considered failures. The scientific consensus is that there is nothing to learn from this body of work. For Rossano, that was the end of the story.
Then Leo Trottier got in touch. Trottier was launching a company selling pet buttons, and he offered Rossano something that’s close to the heart of every scientist: data. Trottier had hundreds of pet owners who were willing to take part in a citizen science project and share data about their pets’ use of talking buttons.
Rossano was intrigued by some of what he saw on the videos of pets using their talking buttons. For example, a dog called Copper asked to go outside to the pool by hitting the buttons “outside” and “pool.” His human told him that the pool was empty, but she would refill it, and they could go outside later. Copper then pushed the button for “now.
First, this suggests that Copper is thinking about something that is not in the room — the pool. And Copper certainly seems to have a grip on the concepts of “now” and “later.” Animals are not generally thought to be capable of thinking in this way. Rossano was intrigued. Not sold, but intrigued. He decided to take on the project. However, he expected the outcome would be a fifth paper discouraging people from revisiting animal language studies.
Critics claimed that what appeared to be spontaneous use of language in earlier primate studies was simply the Clever Hans effect, wherein humans inadvertently cued the animals’ responses. In addition, much of this training was done in labs or human homes, not the natural environment for these animals, and the research typically involved only one or a very few animals at a time.
Rossano and colleagues designed their research to avoid these problems. Their data collection takes place, for the most part, in pets’ homes. After being trained to use the buttons, the pets themselves initiate the communication, avoiding the Clever Hans effect. And unlike previous studies, the number of animals currently in Rossano’s study is almost 2,000 and growing.
Rossano would like his research to answer several questions: Are these pets learning? What are they communicating when they use the buttons? Do they combine words in ways that resemble some type of syntax? Or are they just randomly pushing one button after the other? Can they engage in a back-and-forth, something that suggests a conversation?
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One thing is already clear, says Rossano. “They combine the buttons in ways that are orderly; they’re not random.” And what are they “talking” about? Even when they have many buttons (some pets have over 50), they tend to use “food,” “water,” “play,” and “outside” most frequently, he says. Though it may be disappointing for their humans, “I love you” buttons aren’t as popular as buttons that reflect more pragmatic concerns.
Still, these animals may be doing more than just asking for food or to be taken for a walk. They seem to be combing buttons to create new words. For example, in one video, a dog named Parker looks out the window, returns, and pushes two buttons: “squeaker” and “car.” (Squeaker was on the soundboard because of Parker’s squeaky toys.) Parker’s human was reading and had no idea what Parker was on about.
When she looked out the window, she discovered an ambulance on the street in front of the house. (You’ll be forgiven if, from now on, you refer to ambulances as “squeaker cars.”) Another dog used the buttons “water” and “bone” to refer to ice — and stopped using that combination once the word “ice” was added to the button board. Pets often use the combination “stranger outside” when delivery people arrive.
This is impressive, but Rossano says he wants to be careful not to oversell this. Many research questions remain to be answered. However, based on data so far, “I can 100 percent confirm that many dogs and cats are most certainly using the soundboards to communicate with their humans,” he says. As more videos come in and the data is analyzed, he hopes that we can learn more about our pets’ minds.
“This research can definitely teach us a lot about how dogs learn,” says Hannah Salomons, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University Canine Cognition Center. “If this research helps us better understand what our pets need from us,” she says, “it has the potential to improve their lives.”
And that is part of what motivates Rossano. Copper, who often gets ear infections, pressed “ear” and “help” to alert his human that he was in pain. Another dog combined “ear” and “ouch” to convey the same message. “Even if they don’t learn anything whatsoever about language,” says Rossano, “if they can tell you when they’re in pain so you can take them to the vet, that could be very beneficial.”
This is a citizen science project, and Dr. Rossano is seeking participants. If you and your pets are interested in taking part, you can get more information and sign up here.