The bond between humans and dogs is enduring and deep. But wouldn’t it be nice if our best animal buddies could talk to us? What if they could hold a friendly conversation with us over breakfast, instead of the familiar “yap yap yap,” wagging tail, and doleful stare at the buttered toast on our plate?
That day has dawned. A global movement to teach dogs — as well as cats, birds, horses, and other animals — to talk using human words is gaining momentum. With the help of “talking buttons” originally developed for individuals who have trouble speaking (also known as augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC), dogs around the world are expressing themselves in our own human language. They simply press the button for a given word and the button “speaks” it for them.
A Growing Movement for Talking Dogs
“I remember when I brought a new puppy home to keep my goldendoodle, Dewey, company,” recalls Lindsay Mattock, a professor of library science at the University of Greenville, North Carolina. She has been training Dewey to use talking buttons since 2020. “Dusty, the new puppy, would pounce on him every morning, and he’d immediately walk over and push the ‘mad’ button each time. If he hadn’t had buttons, I would not have known how he felt.”
“Animals are sentient beings with feelings and emotions and intelligence that we have just begun to understand,” explains Pilley Bianchi, founder of the Chaser Initiative and daughter of the late John Pilley, a behaviorist who trained his border collie, Chaser, to learn and respond to more than a thousand words.
It was 2018 when speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger brought home a puppy she named Stella, and began training the pup to use the colorful talking buttons she already used at work with human clients. Today Stella uses more than 45 words and can string them together in phrases up to five words long. Hunger’s bestselling book, How Stella Learned to Talk, opens with a touching anecdote. Hunger’s fiancé was at the door one morning ready to take Stella for a morning romp, when the dog turned to look at Christina, and then walked over to her button board, pressing four buttons that announced: “Christina come play love you.” She then stared at Christina and wagged her tail.
Hunger’s work inspired Alexis Devine, owner of a sheepadoodle named Bunny, to try the talking buttons, and by late 2021, Bunny had over a hundred words in her repertoire. Today, dog owners around the world are teaching their furry best friends to “talk,” and discussing their results online at a site called TheyCanTalk.org.
Success Can Be Elusive
“Button boards, or what we call augmentative interspecies communication devices, may help facilitate understanding between dogs and their owners,” explains Gabriella Smith, an animal behaviorist working for the company CleverPet. Their site, FluentPet, offers a system of HexTiles and recordable sound buttons (where the owner can record a word in their own voice). Typically, says Smith, dogs communicate hunger by whining by their food bowls, or indicate “play” by pawing at their toys. “With buttons,” she says, “we are seeing, at least anecdotally, these same behaviors accompanied by relevant button presses, such as ‘dinner’ or ‘ball.’” Smith and her colleagues are now designing experiments to test dogs’ understanding of buttons and their meanings. The How They Can Talk project currently has both experimental and observational studies underway, taking place in the homes of dogs. Either the owners act as citizen scientists, or the researchers come to the homes to test the pets. “We want to learn about the dogs’ understanding of the buttons in controlled scenarios,” explains Smith, “but we also want to focus on button learning over time, and what variables predict success.”
Success can be elusive at first. When Mattock first tried to train Dewey, he showed no interest in the buttons. “He would press and sniff it and walk away,” she recalls. “He didn’t seem to get it.” She kept trying, pressing a button and saying the word and then engaging in the activity with her dog. “I told a friend, I don’t think he’s interested and I don’t want to force him. Then one day I was on a Zoom call and all of a sudden I heard ‘outside.’ And that night he used all three buttons appropriately and in context.” Since then, she said, it has been easy to add buttons and their communication has deepened and broadened.
“Now he can tell me if he wants to walk in the woods, the neighborhood, or the park,” she says. “He broke a tooth and pressed ‘ouch bone’ after he chewed on a stick.” Even more remarkable, one day he pressed the buttons “dinner, help, hungry, upstairs, downstairs.” It turned out that some dog food had fallen inside a heating vent in the floor. Dewey was trying to convey that with the words “upstairs” and “downstairs.”
And after having a small tumor removed from his mouth, he conveyed his distress over a pain-killing fentanyl pack by continually pressing the button for “concerned.” He had learned that word when Dusty, another dog, had slipped out of his leash and raced off to chase a deer in the woods. “I was shouting Dusty’s name and telling Dewey, ‘Mama’s concerned,’ and later added that button.” Mattock called her vet, and he agreed she should remove the fentanyl patch, since dogs can feel disoriented on it.
The Road Ahead
At this moment in time, says Bianchi, data is still largely anecdotal. But anecdotes are where change begins, she explains. “Science takes a while to catch up. The more people integrate this approach into their household, the more scientists will pay attention. One-way conversations are never valuable in establishing relationships. If we can create a two-way mode of communication between species, that’s a positive in every way.”
The question, says Bianchi, is how much the dogs really understand syntax and grammar. Do we really know what they mean when they say “want?” Do they understand why “want” precedes “walk” or “nap?” We can only learn by further and deeper experimentation with them.
Bianchi thinks one important way to train dogs in extensive vocabulary is to do it the way her father did: Engage them in play as a reward for learning.
In the meantime, says Mattock, talking buttons have transformed her relationship with Dewey. “He can talk back now. He can let me know how he’s feeling or what he wants. I log all the buttons he has pressed in a database, and I realize now Dewey is developing a history. I’m an archivist, and in a sense, he now has an archive. We wouldn’t be able to tell Dewey’s whole story without those buttons.”
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Inside Your Dog’s Mind, in 2022.
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