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Talking To Your Dog

July 23, 2020


Dogs are known as humans’ best friends, but it’s not like you can talk to them. Well, what if you could? Christina Hunger, a speech language pathologist based in San Diego, says it’s possible.

“A lot of my friends thought I was crazy,” Hunger says. “When I was trying this for weeks, they would come over and they would see me modeling these words and they’re like, ‘Has anyone done this?’”

Hunger uses different kinds of talking keyboards with her clients. These augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) boards feature a series of buttons. Each button corresponds with a word, and can be represented with a label or image. When you press the button for something like “water,” you hear the word water. So Hunger started looking for one, but for her dog, Stella.

“It just seemed so obvious to me. So I researched dog AAC, using speech therapy with dogs-style communication devices,” Hunger says. “And I was actually really surprised when I could not find anything that I was picturing. And I saw these buttons that Learning Resources make pop right up on my screen.”

She ordered the buttons, placed the first one on the floor of her house near the front door, and recorded herself saying “outside” on it. When the button was pushed, it played Hunger’s voice. She pressed the button with her foot each time she took Stella outside.

Throughout the first few weeks, Stella stood near the buttons and looked up at Hunger. Then she started barking and swatting at the buttons. After about three weeks, Stella pressed the “outside” button on her own.

The day after she said “outside,” she said “play,” the button for playing fetch with one of Stella’s balls. The day after she said “play,” she said “water,” which corresponded with her water dish. From that point on, Stella was using the buttons independently. Two years later, she is using 40 different words.

“We’ll talk about where she wants to go, what she wants to do. She notices that something’s different in the routine, and we’ll talk about it,” Hunger says.

Some animal cognition specialists say that Stella isn’t doing anything unique. Alexandra Horowitz is a professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she heads the Dog Cognition Lab. She says it’s wonderful that Hunger and Stella have gotten people interested in dog communication, but that Stella isn’t talking. Gadgets that help your dog communicate in human languages aren’t new. Companies started selling what they claimed to be bark translator collars almost 10 years ago. Horowitz says these things aren’t exactly scientific, but they can be helpful when making sense of your dog’s communication cues.

“It’s not like a translator of the dog’s brain or inner thoughts. …  It’s an engagement between a person and dog over a long period of time,” Horowitz says. “I’d rather that we just sort of observe the dog on their own terms and try to see what they’re telling us in in their own language.”

Other researchers are more excited about the possibilities. Leo Trottier has a background in cognitive science and artificial intelligence. He set up a company called CleverPet in 2014 that built a gaming system for dogs so people could get a glimpse into how dogs think.

Then last year, he saw something that completely changed how he was looking at his work: Christina Hunger and her dog, Stella. He developed a set of recordable AAC buttons specifically for dogs. They’re mounted on a hexagonal piece of plywood with velcro.

To test his board, he contacted other people who were using AAC with their dogs. That’s how he found Alexis Devine and her sheepadoodle, Bunny. Devine is a Washington artist who saw Hunger’s videos, and decided she would start using the board with her puppy. Now they’re up to 26 words.

“I feel like once a day, Bunny will do something that just sort of blows my mind to the point where like, okay, let’s keep going. Let’s see what happens next,” Devine says. “She’s learning so quickly. It’s just sort of an amazing process. So we’ll take it as far as we can.”

In March, Trottier created a beta test group for a new AAC board for dogs that he wants to bring to market. Trottier says they’re seeing incredible results as dogs start to master their boards. He says he sold out of his new AAC boards in 11 days. Even though there’s still much more research to be done on dog AAC boards, there always will be a market for these devices because people want to hear their dogs speak to them. Horowitz says that is a good thing: “At minimum, it will get people to be listening to their dogs and caring what they say.”

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