Can Dogs Really Learn to Communicate with Us?
If you’re addicted to dog content like me, you’ve probably stumbled upon videos of Bunny the Sheepadoodle from Tacoma, Washington, telling her ‘mum’ she wants to ‘play’ or ‘go outside’ by pressing a series of buttons on a soundboard.
At first, the conversation held between the pup and her owner, Alexis Devine, seems to be simply a series of lucky guesses. But I must admit that, the longer I watched the video, the more I was tempted to believe that Bunny was clearly expressing herself.
Could this seemingly groundbreaking new system mean we’re getting closer to having actual conversations with our pets?
The answer is not that simple.
How it started
From the moment she decided to adopt, Devine knew she wanted to create a strong connection with her future dog. “My goal before I got her was that I wanted to have the most connected, engaged relationship possible and just see what the possibilities are,” she explained in an interview with The Seattle Times. “I feel like there’s so much potential in animal relationships and I really wanted to make the most of it.”
That’s when she came across speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger’s instagram account, which shows her teaching her dog Stella how to communicate with — you’ve guessed it — the very same method Bunny uses in her videos.
To create her ‘language machine’, Hunger used personalized sound buzzers and attached them to a piece of plywood with velcro, starting with just a few words at first, and applying repetition and practice for them to sink in. “I used language facilitation strategies to teach Stella words in a similar way to how I teach young children to talk as a speech-language pathologist,” she states on her website. Stella now knows how to communicate 29 different words.
While she quickly jumped on the bandwagon, Devine likes to remind her followers that she his a “hopeful skeptic” and finds her relationship with Bunny “fascinating” and “fun”, even though she doesn’t know for sure if any of it is really true. “I am not a scientist but I recognize that large amounts of data need to be collected before we can make a judgment as to whether or not Bunny actually understands what she’s saying,” she posted on social media.
Real or not, Bunny’s language adventures racked up 493k Instagram followers and made her a TikTok star with over 90M likes - and counting.
What do experts say?
“The tricky bit is that we humans are easily fooled by the sound of words, and we think that by using a word, one must know the meaning behind it, and intend to use that word, just in the way humans do,” says psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz in an interview with Slate. “That’s definitely not always the case. A lyre bird mimicking someone yelling ‘timber’ because they’ve heard someone yelling ‘timber’ is not themselves meaning to say ‘timber!’ ”
Just like some people who believe they can hear ghosts, Devine’s experience might as well solely come down to her keen desire to communicate with Bunny, and she’s the first to admit it.
But according to a 2016 study by scientists in Hungary, there are reasons to believe it’s all very much possible. Their findings established that dogs actually process language using the same brain regions as us, humans. But whether the fact that they understand our words mean they can use them to communicate back is left to prove…
A 2018 report concluded that dogs use up to 19 signals to express themselves, mainly via body language (tucked tail, perky ears, bared teeth,…). However, the assumption that dogs could copy our own language by memory remains unclear. While they can learn to remember an impressive amount of words (a border collie named Rico mastered the names of over 200 objects), there is, to this day, no official study supporting Hunger’s conviction that dogs can reciprocate human words by way of speech and language therapy.
Despite the lack of scientific proof, tech companies are ready to cash in on it
Leo Trottier, a cognitive scientist and CEO of the company CleverPet, is already making the most of the the popular concept. Using Hunger’s techniques, Trottier created FluentPet, a system of HexTiles and recordable sound buttons designed to help teach your dog to communicate. Ranging from $29 to $195, the products let customers organize words by categories through the design of intuitive arrangements.
Although she isn’t affiliated with the company, Hunger fully supports its vision. “We’re really just scratching the surface of what is possible,” she said.
On an even more revolutionary note, researchers are also working on an AI system that translates our pets’ vocalizations and facial expressions (yes, you read that right). And Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, biology professor and author of Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals, is leading the way.
After spending 30 years studying prairie dogs and discovering that they have a sophisticated form of vocal communication, Slobodchikoff turned the vocalizations into English by developing an algorithm, which led to the creation of Zoolingua, a company destined to effectively and accurately decode and translate dog sounds and behaviors with computer programs. “I thought, if we can do this with prairie dogs, we can certainly do it with dogs and cats,” he said.
Most surprisingly, AI could bring us the gift of having the most basic conversations with our dogs over our morning coffee sooner than we think, as Slobodchikoff is currently competing with multiple other well-funded tech companies. Plus, a report sponsored by Amazon predicts that pet translating devices could be available in less than 10 years!