It's obvious that dogs have the capacity to understand several human words. For example, your family dog most likely responds to words like “walk,” “treat,” or “ball” with excitement, and reacts in shame to words like “no” and “bad.”
A canine’s ability to engage with verbal language is both helpful and entertaining for humans, and is an important aspect to the bond we share.
Furthermore, our dogs can communicate with us non-verbally. For instance, you know that when your dog looks at your food and lifts a paw, he wants a piece. And when you present your dog with an unfamiliar object, she might tilt her head in curiosity, signaling to you that it has captured her attention. In effect, they are respectively saying, “can I have a piece?” and “what’s that?”
Still, you are left with the desire for a deeper way to connect.
What is my dog trying to tell me?
If you have a dog, chances are you’ve already asked yourself this question multiple times this week.
Imagine if we could really talk to our pets—if we could know what they really want, or if they could tell us when a certain part of their body is aching?
If dogs can understand the words that we say, what kind of communication would be possible if they were also able to utter them?
Speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger is on a mission to find out, and she’s already found that her dog Stella can actually tell her many things, like if she’s tired after playing and wants to take a nap, or if she wants to go outside—specifically to the beach, or to the park.
Hunger became interested in teaching Stella to talk when she saw that Stella’s eye contact, vocalizations and gestures were rather similar to the ones children use before they develop basic competency for spoken language.
So exactly how does Stella talk?
Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Dogs
Stella has found her voice thanks to a phenomenon known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC.
AAC includes everything we use to communicate that is not verbal speech. We use it every day when we make facial expressions, roll our eyes, use hand gestures, or even type on a keyboard.
For most humans, AAC is used to supplement verbal speech, but there are many people who have limited verbal speech capabilities, and for them, AAC is the bedrock for all communication.
AAC technologies are diverse, providing solutions to fit the unique needs of different people. Examples include—but of course are not limited to—lexigrams, braille displays, PODD books, and American Sign Language.
While originally developed for humans, it turns out AAC devices can be used to empower non-human animals with verbal speech too.
Generally, AAC methods are broken into two categories: Unaided AAC and Aided AAC.
Unaided AAC is the type of AAC that does not require a physical aid or tool. Facial expressions, body language, gestures, and sign language all fall under this category.
Aided AAC is the type of AAC that makes use of tools or materials.
Aided AAC can take the form of symbol boards, choice cards, PODD books, speech-generating devices, and even AAC apps on mobile devices.
Teaching Dogs to Talk
Having worked with Augmentative and Alternative Communication equipment at her job in San Diego as a Pediatric Speech Pathologist for Early Intervention, Hunger decided to see if she could give Stella a chance to use her words in a similar manner.
Hunger purchased special buttons with which she could record words and short phrases. When Stella wants to “talk,” all she has to do is step on the buttons that correspond to her desired word, and they will play back the preprogrammed recording.
Below, Stella had been repeatedly pressing her "play" button, requesting attention from Christina and her partner Jake. Having already mastered the concepts of "later" and "all done," Christina and Jake told her that they would play with her once they finish cleaning their apartment.
It would seem Stella comprehended the promise perfectly, as she had this to say when she noticed they had stopped cleaning:
“I really didn’t know this is where speech therapy was taking me until I got Stella, my Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix dog,” Hunger says. “At that same time I was working with toddlers and children who use communication devices to talk, and every time I would see Stella whining or barking or going to the door to show us she needed to go outside, every time I saw her understanding the words we were saying, I just couldn’t stop thinking about how she needed a way to communicate with us. I knew that, if she can understand language, she should absolutely be able to use language.”
Hunger started out by having all the buttons in different, situationally appropriate locations around the house. The “outside” button was placed by the door, the “water” button was placed by her bowl, and so on.
Through modeling, Stella caught on amazingly quickly, and it was when she began walking across the room to combine words that Hunger decided to group the buttons together on a makeshift dog communication board.
Hunger’s experiment has produced astounding results. Stella is now able to use more than 45 different words, and can even create phrases of up to 5 words in length!
These phrases could generously even be called sentences.
Taking inspiration from the work of other animal psychologists—like Dr. Penny Patterson who famously taught Koko the gorilla to speak through American Sign Language—as well as her own personal curiosity, Hunger has begun work on a case study, gathering quantified data about how dogs can learn to use language.
Hunger explains, “Something that’s really cool is that Stella has begun memorizing and anticipating the location of where each button is. This is a skill that humans often develop, called motor planning. For instance, when we’re typing on a keyboard, we just know where the keys are. Stella knows where the different buttons are from so much practice, and this helps her to group words together easily and get her point across.”
Stella’s success story has made her internet famous, boasting nearly 800 thousand followers on her Instagram account, @hunger4words. Stella has inspired other dog parents to try their hand at teaching their dogs to talk with buttons. One has become a bona fide celebrity.
A Tik Tok Sensation: What About Bunny?
With nearly 6 million followers on Tik Tok, artist Alexis Devine and her sheepadoodle Bunny are wowing dog lovers every day as they push the limits of canine communication. Inspired by Stella’s story, Devine began modeling communication buttons from the time Bunny was a puppy.
Since then, Bunny’s vocabulary has grown to include more than 70 buttons.
Concepts of time
One of the most fascinating additions to Bunny’s dog communication board has been the introduction of words related to concepts of time, including “morning,” “afternoon,” “evening,” “yesterday,” and “tomorrow.”
Bunny is able to recount activities she does throughout her day, and at what time of day she does them. A team of researchers in Hungary concluded four years ago that dogs do indeed have some form of episodic memory, or the ability to remember the chronological order of and relative time between events.
A Talking Dog Study
When Bunny’s videos started to really go viral in early 2020, Federico Rossano, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, ran them by his department. Intrigued, they decided to embark on a project that would study Bunny and other dogs like her that use buttons for dogs to talk. Hopefully, the scientific literature born out of the study will shed light on whether non-humans can have the capacity to use something like language to communicate.
Currently, there are 700 pets—dogs, cats, and even horses—participating in the study, and Rossano largely credits the overwhelming enthusiasm to Bunny’s internet stardom.
For the study, each participant receives instructions detailing how to set up their buttons, with the suggested first word “outside.” Cameras are constantly pointed at their dog speech boards, with the video recordings then sent to the lab for researchers to analyze. This solves the potential problem of pet parents “cherry picking” the best scenarios, only sharing the most impressive or situationally accurate engagement with the sound buttons. And just because some instances of button use might not be interesting or impressive enough for a hit Tik Tok or Instagram video, any footage captured is going to be valuable for the researchers.
What can we learn?
Rossano and his colleagues are using the footage not only to understand whether animals can communicate with language, but to more broadly understand different aspects of animal cognition and communication.
One of the things they’re looking at is how quickly the animals catch on to their word buttons. With a large enough sample of participants, they may be able to identify any discrepancies between breed and age, and the impact these factors can have on an animal’s potential to learn.
The Comparative Cognition Lab is also studying how much the animals seem to be exhibiting behavior traditionally thought to be uniquely human.
The next step, anticipated for the winter in 2021, is to send researchers to participants’ homes to conduct more controlled experiments. When witnessing the pets’ engagement with their buttons in person, researchers will be able to verify exactly how much they understand.
Can dogs really talk with buttons?
Those most invested in the study, including Hunger and Devine, are some of its biggest skeptics.
After all, the understanding of language is more than just simple associations between words and concepts, but rather involves crafting unique strings of words to communicate specific thoughts.
When it comes to buttons for dogs to talk, there is of course a lot of potential for confirmation bias, where we perhaps see what we want to see instead of what is truly occurring.
Presumably, most of us want to see the dogs succeed, both because we love our dogs, and because the idea of them using human language to talk to us is insanely cool. However, it’s important that we be as free from bias as possible if we are to get a true understanding of the extent to which animals can use human language.
Perhaps much of what is actually occurring is a phenomenon known in psychology as operant conditioning, where the dogs learn an association between pressing their buttons and something happening as a result.
However, one might argue that this is not much different from a small child learning to use the word “more” to get another mouthful of food.
Obviously, a lot happens developmentally between the time a child can use the word “more” and when they can use their words to tell entire stories, so what the researchers are trying to find out is at what point on that spectrum of development a dog can typically be expected to reach.
The Clever Hans Effect
The idea of non-human animals developing a way to communicate in ways thought to be exclusively human is not new to the scientific community.
In the early 20th century, a horse known as Clever Hans was claimed to have learned to perform arithmetic and various other intellectual tasks. Apparently, he could provide answers to math questions by tapping his hoof.
A 1907 investigation conducted by psychologist Oskar Pfungst would reveal that the horse was not in fact solving math problems, but rather picking up on the reactions of his trainer. Involuntary body language cues, which the trainer was completely unaware to have been providing, allowed Clever Hans to know when to stop tapping his hoof and consistently “answer” the questions correctly.
The researchers at UCSD are mindful of the Clever Hans effect, taking care not to draw premature conclusions. Rossano’s plan is to gather as much data as possible, and he will only begin making claims about dogs’ and other animals’ capacity for language until the Clever Hans effect is ruled out. After all, the connections we share with our pets run deep, and it would not be too surprising if they could similarly pick up on any involuntary body language cues.
Talking Dog Videos
With all that's been said, findings thus far—along with virtually infinite anecdotal evidence that you can find on social media—give us every reason to be optimistic about the potential for dogs to talk to us with word buttons. Let’s take a look at some of the most fascinating examples:
Talking dog can tell us her name:
Polly tells us her name with her dog communication buttons.
Bunny the talking dog alerts her human of ear pain:
This isn't the first time Bunny has alerted Alexis of pain she's experiencing in specific parts of her body. Smart girl!
Dog with buttons asks to go potty:
When you've gotta go, you've gotta go! Louie the Mini Goldendoodle uses word buttons for dogs to communicate an urgent need.
Pick me up!
This dog LOVES being picked up, and thanks to her communication buttons she can request it whenever she pleases.
Can I play with my friends?
This is amazing! Bunny uses her dog speech board to alert Alexis of her friends next door waiting patiently to play.
Asking to stay up late:
Bet you never expected this! Polly uses her recordable buttons to ask to stay up past her bedtime.
No caption needed ❤️