Talking pets have been the darlings of social media lately. The trend started when Christina Hunger, a speech pathologist, made headlines when she adapted techniques used with children to get her dog Stella to communicate.
Stella, and now hundreds of dogs and cats, use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) to “communicate” with the humans in their lives. AAC takes the form of buttons affixed to the soundboard. When the pet presses the button, it plays a recording of a word, such as “hungry,” “out,” “water,” or “play”—whatever is recorded.
Viola! A talking animal! Or is it? Do these animals really use language? A scientist’s goal is to find out.
A reluctant scientist takes the job.
Federico Rossano isn’t on social media, so he missed out on the excitement about the talking buttons. However, some of his colleagues had heard about him 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 e-mailing four papers to his colleagues on why the study of animal language has died down.
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 be learned from this body of work. For Rossano, that was the end of the story.
An interesting concept
Then came contact with Leo Trottier. Trottier was starting a company selling pet buttons, and he offered Rossano something that’s close to every scientist’s heart: data. Trottier had hundreds of pet owners willing to participate in a citizen science project and share data about their pets’ use of the talking buttons.
Rossano was intrigued by what he saw on videos of pets using their talking buttons. For example, a dog named Copper asked to go outside the pool by hitting the “out” and “pool” buttons. Her human tells her the pool is empty, but she’ll refill it, and they can go out later. Copper then pressed the button for “Now.”
First, it turns out that Copper is thinking about something that isn’t in the room – the pool. And Copper certainly grasps the notions of “now” and “later.” Animals are generally considered incapable of thinking in this way. Rossano was intrigued. Not sold, but interesting. He decided to take up the project. However, he expected the result to be a fifth paper that would discourage people from reviewing animal language studies.
How does this differ from previous animal language studies?
Critics have claimed that what previously appeared to be the spontaneous use of language in primate studies was Clever swan effect, in which humans unwittingly prompted animal responses. In addition, much of this training was done in labs or human homes, not the natural environment for these animals, and research usually involved only one or 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 pet homes. After being trained to use the buttons, pets initiate communication on their own, avoiding Clever Hans’ effect. And unlike previous studies, Rossano’s research currently numbers about 2,000 animals and growing.
Rossano would like to answer several questions from his research: Are these pets learning? What are they communicating when they use the button? Do they connect words in ways that resemble some kind of syntax? Or are they randomly pressing one button after another? Can they engage in something back and forth that suggests a conversation?
Read more: Do animals dream and how can we tell?
Do talking dog buttons work?
One thing is already clear, says Rossano. “They connect the buttons in ways that are organized. They’re not random.” And what are they “talking” about? Even when they have many buttons (some pets have more than 50), they often use “food,” “water,” “play” and “out,” he says. Although it can be frustrating to their humans, “I love you” buttons are not as popular as buttons that reflect more practical concerns.
Still, these animals May be Doing more than just asking for food or taking them for a walk. They seem to be combing the buttons to create new words. For example, in one video, a dog named Parker looks out the window, returns and presses two buttons: “squeaker” and “car”. (The squeaker was on the soundboard because of Parker’s squeaky toys.) Parker’s human was reading and had no idea what Parker was on.
When he looked out the window, he saw 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 snow – and stopped using this compound after the word “ice”. The button was added to the board. Pets often use the “stranger outside” combination when the delivery people come.
That’s impressive, but Rossano says he wants to be careful not to oversell it. Many research questions remain to be answered. However, based on the data so far, “I can confirm 100 percent that many dogs and cats are using soundboards to communicate with their humans,” he says. . As more videos come out and data is analyzed, he hopes we’ll learn more about the minds of our pets.
“This research can certainly teach us a lot about how dogs learn,” says Hannah Salomon, an evolutionary anthropologist at the 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’s part of what motivates Rossano. Copper, who often gets ear infections, presses “ear” and “help” to alert his human that he is in pain. Another dog combined “ear” and “ouch” to convey the same message. “Even if they don’t learn anything about language,” says Rossano, “if they can tell you that you can take them to the doctor when they’re in pain, that’s very rewarding. May be.”
This is a citizen science project, and Dr. Rossano is looking for participants. If you and your pet are interested in participating, you can find more information and sign up here. Here.