Do you talk to your pets? I know we do. Of course, they understand some words we use regularly such as, walk, treat, and sit, but how much do they really understand?

Until recently there was very little research into language skills of domestic pets but it looks pretty clear that we haven't been talking to ourselves.

The relationship between dog and human is unusually close thanks to an estimated 11,000 years of domestication.

We feed them, care for them and breed them selectively for friendliness and other useful traits. We have shaped almost every attribute of their bodies and minds. They live in our homes and play important roles in many industries.

In various ways, dogs have shaped us too. Over the years they have ‘manipulated’ us to feel protective towards them and to bring them into our homes and how many of us snuggle up close on the sofa having once said, “The dog will never be permitted to sit on the furniture”.

If any animal was likely to excel at communication with humans, it would be the dog. Yet until recently, there has been surprisingly little study of them.

Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist, was struck by just how precocious her little puppy was when she brought him home. Stella, the puppy, was soon exhibiting over half of the skills a nine-month-old baby might be expected to demonstrate shortly before they begin to say their first words.

In her job, Christina works with children with developmental issues, finding ways in which they might communicate their wants through non-normative means. This field, known as “augmented and alternative communication”, or AAC, encompasses many tools and techniques, including sign language and facial expressions, as well as speech-generating devices of the kind used by Stephen Hawking. Often she uses iPad apps, allowing her clients to press buttons that enunciate words or phrases on their behalf – “More”, “Stop”, “Hungry”, “All done”.

Could human devices work for canine friends?

Christina wondered whether Stella could learn to communicate using similar tools. Could a dog use AAC?

She didn’t see why not. She found a pack of four “recordable answer buzzers” online and programmed the first button to announce “Outside”. It would be Stella’s first word.

Dog Behaviour
It took a while for the penny to drop, but after three weeks Stella began to pay it a great deal of attention. It wasn’t long before Stella began to use it as intended and she seemed delighted with herself, when the door was  opened.

Since that first button push, Stella has gone on to learn around 50 words: nouns, verbs, adjectives. Christina introduced them slowly and with lots of positive reinforcement but now when she presses the button for  “Water” her bowl is refilled.
Stella’s  progress was quick and she was even able to ask for ‘Help’ to find a lost toy, or ‘I love’ you when she needed cuddles. 

What are the limits of a dog’s comprehension?

Christina isn’t the first person to explore the limits of a pet dog’s language comprehension. Behavioural psychologist Dr John Pilley once taught the collie Chaser the names of 1,000 toys, and later demonstrated that she understood basic grammar. But Christina’s AAC board meant she could study not only Stella’s comprehension but her capacity for generating language, for two-way communication.  Her popular Instagram account, @hunger4words, attracts pet owners keen to try Christina’s methods for themselves.

Among them is Alexis Devine, an artist based in Tacoma, Washington, who in 2019 bought a bouncy, Sheepadoodle (an Old English Sheepdog crossed with a Poodle) called Bunny. She used an AAC system and also began with a simple “outside” button by the front door. Alexis copied Christina’s methods. Since then, Bunny’s progress has been even faster than Stella’s. Videos posted by Alexis, who has seven million followers on TikTok (@whataboutbunny), show more than 90 buttons arranged on neat hexagonal tiles.

More research is required.

Dog owners are often keen to tell you that their pets understand them or even seem to have second sense. Our dog seems to be able to distinguish the difference between the sound of our car arriving and others just passing by.  We often believe that we understand our pets behaviours and habits and personalities, their likes and dislikes. Some of these impressions are probably not true but what if there is a basis of truth?

We project a great deal onto our wordless companions, and pride ourselves in playing a protective, even parental, role in their lives. But maybe it is for the best that we can never truly know what they are thinking.

This blog is an extract from the New Humanist winter 2021

August 24, 2023 — byron marr