“Walk now please:” How Dogs are Learning to Talk

Using speech therapy soundboards, it appears that doggos are mastering the art of human communication.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Stella the dog can talk, or at least, that is how it seems on her Instagram feed. Her favourite words are, predictably, outside, food, and pets. To say them, she presses down on a soundboard, a floor mat of buttons each of which emits a different pre-recorded word. Stella, a chocolate-coloured Catahoula and blue heeler mix, is absolutely adorable and from the videos, appears to genuinely have learnt how to speak, or at least, how to use words to communicate her needs. She has wooed the internet, and now has 790k followers on Instagram. I came across her videos on Facebook and was immediately obsessed. Is Stella the dog really talking? Or does her owner just make it seem that way by cherry-picking videos?

In one clip, Stella is watching somebody outside on the sidewalk, and presses on buttons to say “who outside?”. Another, filmed when Stella was coming back from her evening walk with owners Christina and Jake Hunger, shows Christina ask “Wait did Stella eat before we left?” Before Jake can answer, Stella says “Help good. Want eat.” She then licks her lips and went to stand near the kitchen.

Stella’s all-time favourite word, however, is “outside,” and she uses it in many different combinations: “outside,” “come outside”, “want outside”, at least twenty times a day, according to Christina. And in the same way that Christina and Jake tell Stella she’s a good girl, Stella praises her owners, too, saying “good” after she enjoys a treat, a nice scratch or a fun game. In total, Stella now has 39 words on her board, and strings sentences of up to five words.

This is enormous progress since the very first videos posted, when Stella is a puppy and struggling even to press down on a single button.

Behind the training is Stella’s owner Christina Hunger, who is a speech-language pathologist. She was intrigued by the similarities she perceived between Stella and pre-verbal children, and ordered recordable buttons that she sometimes uses with humans who struggle to speak. As Hunger wrote on Instagram, “I saw that Stella was gesturing to go outside by standing near the door. I saw that Stella was watching us while we talked, and attempting to say “outside.” Most importantly, I knew that for children, using words would be the next developmental milestone.”

“My initial intention was just to teach her a few words to express some basic needs to help us communicate a bit better, but we just kept progressing,” Hunger told The Guardian.

What does the science say?

I’m no animal expert, so all I can say is that Stella is a very good girl, 15/10, would definitely go round for a chat with her and some scratches. But like many people watching the videos, I had many questions, like whether Stella was actually learning to talk or just responding to her owner’s subtle signals, whether she can actually grasp abstract concepts like “good” or “where”, as to how far this could go and how to explain it.

Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any good answers. Animal behavioral scientists were as impressed, and befuddled, by Stella’s talking as anyone.

This led one group of scientists to launch their own study, based on Hunger’s work. Dr Federico Rossano, director of the Comparitive Cognition Lab at the University of California San Diego, along with PhD candidate Leo Trottier, started the They Can Talk project to document animals progress in expressing themselves with buttons. To make it as large scale as possible, they decided to make it an open-source, citizen science study. Anyone can apply to involve their animal in the study — and so far, 1000 dogs, 50 cats and even some horses are taking part. Participants receive directions on how to set up their soundboard, beginning with simple words like “play” or “food”. Cameras constantly film the board so that the researchers receive all the footage rather than cherry-picked clips.

One of the participants, Sheepadoodle Bunny, had already been using buttons, based on Hunger’s experiments, since 2019, and is the internet’s other famous talking dog with 5.3 million TikTok followers. She communicates with up to 70 words now, and has even started using pronouns.

As the researchers told The Verge, one of the first things they are looking for is how long it takes animals to master the use of buttons. Another is how they incorporate concepts that are generally thought of to be uniquely human traits — like having a grasp of time and space. When Bunny asks “where dad” does that mean she understands the concept of space? Hunger has made big claims about Stella’s ability to talk about future events, saying that she could express the idea of eating first and then playing. This would indicate an ability to actually plan ahead.

Researchers also want to know if the dogs are genuinely using the words to communicate, or because they are trained to associate one word with a certain outcome. The animals could even be responding to subtle signs that their owners send them, like the infamous case of Clever Hans, the horse that could do math — except actually, he couldn’t. It was thought that he could respond to simple math questions by tapping his hoof, but in reality, he wasn’t doing addition or subtraction but merely reading cues from humans to know when to stop tapping and make them happy.

Dogs already know how to talk — do they need human words?

But I also have questions that are less about talking dogs and more about us humans. Why do we have this intense need to get our dogs to use human language, when we have such wonderful ways of communicating with our pets already? An entire hybrid language between dogs and humans has been born, from handshakes to sitting down nicely, and in general we manage to understand our pets just fine without verbal communication. In fact, that is often the joy of it.

I know that there have been times when nothing that anyone could say could be as comforting as my dog coming over when I was sad. He couldn’t understand what was going on, I couldn’t explain it with words, but also I didn’t need to. I was just an animal in pain, and he was a friend giving comfort, and the purity of that exchange, our ability to understand the essence without needing the details, is what brings the richness to the relationship.

Maybe instead of teaching dogs our languages, we should focus instead on learning theirs. It could enrich our human communication too, because so much of what we understand and express is non-verbal, and yet we don’t fully understand it on a conscious level.

Either way, I’m fascinated to find out the results of the study, if only to better understand the brains of our animal friends. Christina Hunger is also publishing a book, “How Stella Learned to Talk,” to be released on May 4.

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