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Look Who's Talking!

Button-pressing pooches are helping scientists understand how dogs communicate with humans

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT how animals and humans communicate without using words.

It was Friday evening, and Stella the dog was at home with her owner, Christina Hunger. The pup was eagerly waiting for Hunger’s husband, Jake, to come back from work.  Suddenly, Stella heard the rumble of a car engine in the driveway. But instead of heading for the door to greet her human pal, Stella ran to a board on the floor near the house’s entryway. The excited pup pressed two of the board’s colorful buttons with her paw. “Jake. Outside.” said an electronic voice. Stella was letting everyone know Jake was home!

It was Friday evening. Stella the dog was at home with her owner, Christina Hunger. The pup was eagerly waiting for Hunger’s husband, Jake. He was on his way home from work.

Suddenly, Stella heard a car engine rumble in the driveway. But she didn’t head for the door to greet her human pal. Instead, the excited pup ran to a board on the floor near the house’s entrance. The board had colorful buttons. Stella pressed two of them with her paw. “Jake. Outside,” said an electronic voice. Stella was letting everyone know Jake was home!

Stella’s owner, Christina Hunger, is a speech-language pathologist who treats people with communication difficulties. Since dogs seem to understand and respond to human language, Hunger was curious to find out what Stella would say if she could speak. Hunger decided to train Stella to use a special device inspired by ones used by people who can’t express themselves verbally. The apparatus consisted of four large plastic buttons that could record and play back sounds. Hunger programmed each button to say a simple word—outside, play, water, and walk—when pressed. “Stella’s so alert to everything in her environment,” Hunger says. “With her new communication tools, she was finally able to talk about it!” Over the years, Stella’s button collection has grown to include more than 45 words.

Stella’s owner, Christina Hunger, is a speech-language pathologist. She treats people with communication difficulties. Dogs seem to understand and respond to human language. So Hunger wondered what Stella would say if she could speak. 

Some people who can’t speak verbally use a special device. Hunger decided to train Stella to use one like it. Stella’s device had four large plastic buttons that could record and play back sounds. Hunger programmed each button to say a simple word when pressed. They were outside, play, water, and walk. “Stella’s so alert to everything in her environment,” Hunger says. “With her new communication tools, she was finally able to talk about it!” Over the years, Stella’s button collection has grown. Now it includes more than 45 words. 

CHRISTINA HUNGER

CHATTY PUP: Christina Hunger says that her dog, Stella, has learned how to communicate using buttons that play back simple words.

Today, Stella the “talking dog” is internet famous. She has also started a new trend. All over the world, dog owners are teaching their pooches to use speech devices. Now scientists want to know: Are these dogs actually talking?

Today, Stella the “talking dog” is famous on the internet. And she’s started a new trend. Around the world, dog owners are teaching their pooches to use speech devices. Now scientists want to know: Are these dogs actually talking? 

HUMAN’S BEST FRIEND

The friendship between humans and canines dates back millennia. The many breeds of dog we keep as pets today are descendants of wolves. Scientists believe that between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, wolves were likely attracted to human settlements, where they could snack on food scraps and take shelter during the cold months. Humans, in turn, would have kept the friendliest wolves around as helpful companions.

Over time, humans bred these canines to pass on desirable traits, or characteristics, such as the ability to understand social cues from humans. After dozens of generations, the animals evolved into a different subspecies: Canis lupus familiaris, or the domestic dog.

Humans and canines have been friends for thousands of years. The ancestors of today’s dogs were wolves. They were probably attracted to human settlements. There, they could find food scraps and shelter during the cold months. Scientists believe that happened between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago. Humans would have kept the friendliest wolves around as helpful companions. 

Over time, humans bred the animals to pass on desirable traits, or characteristics. One was the ability to understand social cues from humans. After many generations, the animals evolved into a different subspecies: Canis lupus familiaris, the domestic dog.

EMILY BRAY/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

BODY LANGUAGE: A study at the University of Arizona showed that 8-week-old puppies can understand complex gestures, like pointing.

Today, dogs’ ability to communicate with people sets them apart from their wolf ancestors. From birth, domestic dogs can understand human body language. When a person points to a container hiding a piece of food, even young puppies will get the idea that the person is telling them to investigate what’s inside, says Stanley Coren, an expert in dog behavior at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “But a human-reared wolf that’s the same age will just look at your hand.”

Other studies have shown that dogs also look to their owners for help. For example, when wolves are presented with a puzzle that is impossible to solve—a locked cage with a piece of meat inside—they will try again and again to get the juicy treat. But dogs will give up after about a minute and look at their owner as if to say “I could use some help here!”

Today, dogs are good at communicating with people. This sets them apart from their wolf ancestors. From birth, domestic dogs can understand human body language. For example, a person may point to a container with food hidden inside. Even young puppies will realize that the person is telling them to find what’s inside, says Stanley Coren. He’s an expert in dog behavior at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “But a human-reared wolf that’s the same age will just look at your hand.” 

Dogs also look to their owners for help. Other studies have shown this. For example, a piece of meat is placed in a locked cage. When wolves are given this impossible puzzle, they try again and again to get the juicy treat. But dogs give up after about a minute and look at their owner. It’s as if they’re saying, “I could use some help here!” 

A WAY WITH WORDS

Scientists agree that dogs are born to communicate with their human companions. But the extent to which canines can understand and use human language is still up for debate. To investigate this, scientists at Eötvos Loránd University in Hungary created the “Genius Dog Challenge” (see Smart Pups). The experiment set out to test how many objects dogs can correctly identify by name. One contender, Whisky, knows the names of more than 100 different toys!

Dogs are born to communicate with their human companions. Scientists agree on that. But how much can canines understand and use human language? That’s still up for debate. To find out, scientists at Eötvos Loránd University in Hungary created the “Genius Dog Challenge” (see Smart Pups). The experiment tested how many objects dogs can correctly identify by name. Whisky is one of the dogs in the challenge. She knows the names of more than 100 different toys! 

CANINE COMPANIONS

PARTNERS FOR LIFE: Because of their strong bond with humans, dogs can learn to guide the blind, detect diseases, and provide calming therapy.

So what about dogs like Stella that have learned to use electronic speech devices? Do they really know the meanings of the words they select? Right now, scientists don’t have enough research to prove that these dogs are actually communicating. It’s possible that the dogs are responding to cues humans don’t even realize they’re giving. This type of misunderstanding has happened before. Clever Hans was a famous horse who could supposedly solve math problems by stomping his hoof a certain number of times to indicate the correct answer. When psychologists conducted research on Clever Hans, however, they found that the horse was simply watching his human’s facial expressions and gestures. Those cues told Clever Hans when he’d reached the right answer. In the same way, a dog might follow their owner’s gaze and press the button they’re looking at.

People might also be looking for meaning in random combinations of buttons the dogs press, explains Clive Wynne, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who studies dog behavior. “We’d all love to talk to our animals in the same ways we would with our friends,” says Wynne. It’s possible these dogs are pressing buttons to gain attention—to get their human to pet them or give them a treat—and not because they have anything specific to say.

So what about dogs that use electronic speech devices, like Stella? They choose words, but do they really know the meanings? Right now, scientists don’t have enough research to prove that these dogs are actually communicating. Humans may be giving cues without realizing it, and the dogs could be responding. This type of misunderstanding has happened before. Clever Hans was a famous horse who could supposedly solve math problems. He stomped his hoof a certain number of times to give the correct answer. But then psychologists studied Clever Hans. They found that the horse was just watching his human’s facial expressions and gestures. Those cues told Clever Hans when he’d reached the right answer. In the same way, a dog might follow their owner’s gaze to a certain button. Then the dog presses that button.

Or possibly the dogs could just be pressing random buttons. Then people might look for meaning in the combinations, explains Clive Wynne. He’s a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who studies dog behavior. “We’d all love to talk to our animals in the same ways we would with our friends,” says Wynne. Maybe these dogs just want their human to pet them or give them a treat. So they press buttons to gain attention, not because they have anything specific to say.

SCIENTISTS LEAD THE WAY

Science may soon shed some light on these button-pushing pups. In 2020, researchers at the University of San Diego in California began a study called “They Can Talk.” Their question: Are dogs like Stella using recorded words to speak their mind or just reacting to their owners?

The scientists recruited more than 3,500 pet owners around the world to train their dogs to use buttons for communication. These citizen scientists noted when their pets pushed buttons and whether the words made sense in context. Patterns in the way the pets use their communication devices could reveal whether they’re pressing the buttons purposefully or at random.

Science may soon reveal more about these button-pushing pups. In 2020, researchers at the University of San Diego in California began a study called “They Can Talk.” They asked: Are dogs like Stella using recorded words to speak their mind? Or are they just reacting to their owners? 

The scientists chose more than 3,500 pet owners around the world. Then the owners trained their dogs to use buttons for communication. These citizen scientists noted when their pets pushed buttons. They also noted if the words made sense in context. The researchers can look for patterns in the way the pets use their communication devices. That could reveal if they’re pressing the buttons on purpose or at random.

RUTH FREMSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

PUSHING BUTTONS: Scientists aren’t sure if internet-famous “talking” pooches, like Bunny the poodle (pictured here), are actually able to “talk.”