Have you seen the news that a speech pathologist, Christina Hunger, has taught her dog to “talk,” or to communicate not just nouns and verbs, but “her thoughts and feelings as well”? Christina taught her Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix, Stella, to use a “sound board,” similar to the kind she uses to help very young children communicate.
Here’s a video:
There are so many ways to deconstruct this–here are just a few:
One the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss this as a naive Dr. Doolittle-ish desire to “talk to the animals”. There are innumerable examples of well-meaning people who believed they had cracked the code and found a way directly into a non-human animal’s brain. The most famous, of course, is the case of the horse, Clever Hans, who was believed by his owner and math teacher, Wilhelm von Osten, to understand arithmetic. It took extensive observations by Professor Oscar Pfungst to find that Clever Hans was clever indeed, but not because he could do addition and division in his head. The horse was a brilliant observer, and used subtle cues from people around him to know when he had found the right answer (he pawed out a number with a front hoof).
Animals are much, much better than is often realized at reading visual cues from us humans. And many is the time when someone was sure their animal knew X, but only because he or she was cuing off of the person in the room. Drs. Suzanne Hetts and Dan Estep visited a man who got a lot of press in Denver by claiming his dog could do math and geography. (Geography?) The dog answered “yes” or “no” depending on the number of times he pawed his owner’s hand. As they relate “The whole thing fell apart when we put a sheet in between him and the dog…”.
On the other hand, carefully tested and credible experiments have shown that animals can indeed learn to make sounds or gestures that are equivalent to human speech. One of the most well known is the work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg who trained the African Grey parrot Alex to use words not just for nouns or verbs, but for concepts like “bigger” or “different”. Famously, Alex’s last words, said to Irene as he did every night, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you”.
What is not as well-known is what Alex said to Dr. Pepperberg when she had to leave him at a veterinary clinic over night, one of the few times he’d been away from her. As she walked out the door he said: “I’m sorry, I love you, I’m sorry.” (Knowing that pretty much destroyed me the few times I’ve had to leave a dog or cat at a vet clinic.) Nor do most articles mention that Alex once looked into a mirror and asked “What color Alex?” He’d never been taught the word “grey”. Alex clearly relished being able to communicate, including saying, spontaneously, “You go away!” to an impatient trainer.
And then, of course, there’s the famous chimpanzee Washoe, who began using sign language herself after observing her caretakers doing it. She went on to learn up to 350 signs, used them spontaneously and combined them together when she didn’t know the word. Watermelon became “candy fruit,” a thermos became “metal cup drink,” a swan became “water bird”.
And then there was Koko, the famous gorilla who was taught by Ms. Patterson to use up to 1,000 ASL words. (Don’t miss Koko and Robin Williams in the video below, it’s priceless.)
What’s relevant here is that the researchers and trainers of these animals faced not just skepticism, but in some cases downright derision. (See, for example, Dr. Pepperberg’s book, Alex and Me.) They had to fight for acceptance, funding and respect.
So, we have these two perspectives, both absolutely accurate. What makes the latter different from the former is that in the case of Alex, Wahoe and Koko, careful tests were done to eliminate the Clever Hans Effect, and objective observers were brought in to help discern what the animal was doing, or not doing.
Which is why I would like to see more about Christina Hunger’s work, and ask a lot of questions. I find it important that Hunger is a speech pathologist who works with young children, and uses the same methods on Stella. Pepperberg did something similar with Alex, repeating and prompting over and over until he “got it”. But the questions need to be asked. Does Stella use the board spontaneously? Will she use it if she can’t see Ms. Hunger? How does Stella’s use of the board compare to that of young children?
And perhaps the most important question, based on a comment sent in recently by Sandy on an earlier post: “Message on a T-shirt; “I wonder what my dog named me?” The question is, do we want to know? Now there’s a pandora’s box for you.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: I just happened to get an interesting set of shots of Maggie driving four sheep up the hill away from the others. Note that the ewe on the right (Snow White) is looking directly at Maggie. She had drifted off to the right, in a time honored strategy used by smart sheep: “I’ll just slide over this way and hope the dog stays focused on the larger group.”
What I love about this photo is that, after taking it, I realized it was a great example of Maggie using her eye to control the sheep, not just her body. She didn’t moving her torso to the right at all, but I would bet the farm that her eyes moved to the right and looked directly at Snow White.
And look what happened: Snow White decided to rejoin the group, and they all went up the hill shoulder to shoulder.
Some lovely light a few days ago. Right now everything is covered in snow. Again. Fourth significant snow storm of the season. Oh my. It’s going to be a long winter.
But then, there’s still color and beauty everywhere if you look for it.
And so, my question to you: If your dog had a nickname for you, what would it be?
The funny thing about the video of Stella alerting to an outside noise is how inessential the words actually seem. My dogs can clearly communicate “Outside!?! Look look look look!!!!” to me without pushing any buttons!
Teaching dogs to ‘speak’ in this way does seem like it has the immediate advantage of making it easier for humans to listen. To add to your other questions, Trisha, I’d be interested to see input from people who have taught their dogs to sign — how similar/different does this seem? My dogs aren’t trained to sign, but have been encouraged to communicate their wants/needs/feelings a great deal. They share a lot of interests with Stella though, with “outside” being a popular request around here too.
Olive’s nicknames for me: Safe space; slow learner
Phoebe’s nickname for me: You never give me as much as I want (not sure how to put that in a nickname, maybe an acronym — yngmamaiw).
If they put their heads together, they might call me: steep curve (as in learning and treat dispensing 😉
Love that Koko clip. The Stella clip does lead to more questions. It reminds me of facilitated communication [https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2018/06/18/facilitated-communication-may-be-an-abuse-of-human-rights-why-is-a-university-teaching-it/#470680ff29f3] that was very controversial and ultimately debunked.
We are getting a significant snowstorm right now. You are right, long winter ahead.
Margarita palacio says
I use reward based training and I feel like this is what my pup calls me. 😂
Nick name guesses:
She Who is Slow to Get My Cue (definitely not She Who Must Be Obeyed);
The Cookie Monster;
Games Master and/or The Ref;
The Searcher (they don’t use this philosophically, but literally – keys, pens, lists, bags etc).
Cori McKee says
I would probably be named “Crabby human who needs to play more and stress less”, because Ultimately, I think that is what my dogs are trying to teach me.
Ouch. That “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry” is a killer – and a good reminder to be cheerful and loving and matter-of-fact in those (I hope) rare situations, with the hope of at least minimizing the “I’m sorry” part of it.
I joke that our dogs’ name for me is Mean Mommy. Another possibility on these cold dark evenings is Sleepy Lady. (Fortunately, our current pup LOVES to nap, and even groans with dismay when a nap is coming to an end!)
Megan Shannahan says
Hi there. I’m Patrick Shannahan’s niece and this story has really peaked my interest as I am also a speech language pathologist who works with Augmentative and Alternative Communication. The principles seems very similar to how we train young children to communicate with AAC, but it’s interesting to think about a dogs cognition and social competence. As a human you can combine words into phrases once you learn 50 words (around 2 years old). So does that mean her dog has equivalent cognition? Or is she using each button for different communicative functions!
An another principle of AAC is never making an individual communicate by using hand over hand or hand over “paw” cues, so that in theory a person has a right to communicate what messages are authentic to themselves, however; it gets tricky trying to predict what a person may want to comment, request or protest about! I would imagine it would be an even larger challenge to choose those words for your dog.
Diane Pellowe says
Mindy’s nickname for me: Hey, Lady!
My nickname? Probably FunAlphaLady or Walkie Talkie. We do have fun playing together and go for a lot of walks while I do all the talking, so … Or maybe IceCreamEater? Yeah, that works for us.
OK first, how did I miss that Koko the gorilla died just last year? How sad, what an inspiration she and her trainer (and kittens!) were. Loved that video clip.
I always say Georgie’s names for my husband and me are Food Dispensing Unit #1 and Food Dispensing Unit #2. And sometimes Belly Butler.
I am currently midway through Alexandra Horowitz’s “Inside of a Dog,” so it was interesting to see the Stella video with that book in mind. On the fence what I think. Although I’m certain that Georgie communicates to us many or most of the words/concepts on that board in non-verbal ways, and also that she understands and distinguishes an astonishing (to me) number of spoken words. So the real question is whether she could memorize the meaning of the various buttons by location (since I’m assuming Stella has not learned to read the labels!)…
Flora Johnson says
The difference between human language and animal communication isn’t clear cut. There are various qualities that may or may not define human language (they’re highly debatable), and many animal species possess at least a few of them. As far as I know, there is no consensus on where to draw the line.
You asked whether we want to know where non-human animals fall on that spectrum. For what it’s worth, my response is that we don’t need to care. There’s nothing wrong with finding out what non-human animals are able to learn to do, if we can do it in a scientific and humane way. But we don’t need to try to fit non-human animals into abstract, largely arbitrary human categories.
One of the reasons I enjoy reading your books so much is that you encourage humans to meet dogs on *their* terms, not ours. You encourage humans to understand and appreciate non-human animals as they are, and that is what we — and they — need.
My previous dog taught me to understand when he was saying yes (lick lips) and no (no lip licking) on one of our walks. When I realized what was happening I tested by asking things like “Do you want to go for a car ride?” lip lick. “Do you want a bath?” no lip lick. For the last five or so years of his life this really helped because he injured his back and developed bleeding ulcers from a bad reaction to medication would often have hidden pai. If he was acting odd I’d ask if he needed to see the vet and if he answered yes I would name his two vets (regular vet and chiropractor) he would answer yes to the vet he wanted to see. Then I’d name body parts to narrow down what the complaint was and he’d answer yes when I hit the sore spot. We’d then go to the vet and they’d ask, “What is wrong?” and I say, “He asked to come here, so let’s see what you can find.” They’d examine him and would inevitably find something wrong with the body part he had specified. After doing that a number of times I just started telling them what was hurting and they’d find something. When the regular vet asked how I was diagnosing at home I told her and she started playing 20 questions with him too. She got so much info from him that she’d sometimes forget and ask him questions that weren’t yes and no questions and then would say, “Oh, sorry. I forgot you can’t talk.” and go back to 20 questions.
Kristi Murdock says
Ziva doesn’t do contractions or nicknames. She calls me “maMA,” in a rather pretentious little French schoolgirl voice. There is often an eye roll. Gabe calls me “Huggles,” which seems to roughly translate to “we have the best hugs and adventures!”
I think a lot depends on how committed the animal is to communicating. Sometimes, we think Ziva has dedicated her life to teaching us to understand her. I think she would adopt a communication board like this in no time at all (but the buttons would need to be easier to push, she hates her “that was easy!” Staples button) but it would, indeed, be a Pandora’s box… I think it would be much harder for us all to live together in harmony if she could really tell us what she thinks about things! Gabe, on the other hand, doesn’t really seem to care whether we get it or not, he just yells “plot twist” and moves on.
This does seem to be somewhat related to the concept of Consent as is being used with Fear Free and other low stress methods these days, also. As an animal welfare supporter, I love the idea that we are giving the animal a choice; as a teacher, I do think we all need to sometimes do things we don’t want to do in this life (get our tangled hair brushed out, take nasty medicine, sit and be quiet when we’d rather be running and playing), and pretending otherwise to anyone, human or not, is setting them up for a fall.
That “Help” thing she does is mind blowing.
Benjamin’s nick name for me? Perhaps ‘slow poo slave – one just can’t get the staff…’ he gets very impatient with me when he’s done his business and then needs to wait for me to pick it up – starts whining every single time!
Finna would have called me Source of All Good
Ranger would have called me One Who Can Hear–Countless times Ranger would be attempting to ask my husband for something and hubby just wasn’t getting it. He’d tell Ranger to go tell me what he wanted. Ranger would come to me in the other room communicate what he wanted, I’d relay it to my husband and Ranger would go back to him to wait for whatever it was he was asking for.
We actually taught Ranger a handful of canine signs from Dogs Can Sign, Too: A Breakthrough Method for Teaching Your Dog to Communicate to You by Sean Senechal. It was always fascinating when he’d spontaneously use the few words he knew to communicate. One day he walked up to me and signed toy. Since there were no toys in the vicinity I asked which toy, he poked the cat on my lap with his nose and signed toy again. The cat he poked was the one that would play with him. When I showed him the other cat and asked him what it was he indicated no word for that; that cat wouldn’t play with him. Another time he asked for food toy and since I didn’t know whether he was asking for food or a toy I asked him to show me. He took me to a food puzzle. I could add a bunch of other similar stories. Altogether he knew probably a dozen words receptively (I could use them to communicate to him) and used seven or eight of them to communicate to me. Given the limits of his vocabulary I was impressed how clearly he could express himself and how easily I could see why he used the word or word combo that he did.
I was thinking of Kanzi, the bonobo who learned language without direct instruction, via watching his adoptive mother’s lessons using lexigrams. When they were separated, he spontaneously began using the lexigram keyboard to request apple juice (door-key-juice: the door to the laboratory was locked; the juice was kept in a small room down the hall). I can certainly imagine Drew doing that — he indicates ‘play ball!’ with his body many, many times a day. I’m not sure I’d want to add vocal speech to that. He’d probably drive me mad; ‘later’ is definitely not in his vocabulary.
My dog effectively communicates several desires. If he wants to go outside he sits by the door and if I haven’t noticed fast enough pats the door. If he wants treats he sits by the treat cupboard and scratches at the door. If he wants help getting his ball he barks and looks. If he wants pats he buts my body and puts a paw on my leg. So he tells me outside, food, help, hurry and love easily. He can also make me understand the type of toy he wants to play with and the kind of treat he wants to eat. I tried to teach him the names of toys and colour of balls, but he didn’t want to learn that so we went back to chasing squirrels (his primary job).
If Oli had a nickname for me it would be woofbarksnuffsnuff. I think it means -well-trained one!!
Tony Soll says
“Desertion” by Clifford Simak ( https://archive.org/stream/Astounding_v34n03_1944-11_cape1736#page/n63/mode/2up ) is a short story I read in high school many years ago. I won’t give it all away but a man and his dog communicate on another planet using technology. Ever since then I have been wondering what would happen if I could really read the thoughts of my animal friends. One of my border collie‘s favorite tricks is to say “hello“ when we are riding up to the 23rd floor where we live. It really is one of her vocalizations that I reinforced until we could do it all the time. It delights people of all ages. Of course she communicates in so many other ways apart from understanding words we’ve never taught her. I highly recommend this lovely story to Dog lovers everywhere.
The discussion about dogs learning human language reminds me of the story “Black Betty” by Nisi Shawl. It was featured on Levar Burton’s podcast last year and really stuck with me.
It deals with some heavy topics through the lens of a dog who has been “modded” to be able to speak. Parts of it made me cry, but I love the descriptions of how a dog might view our world and relationships, and how those views might need to evolve with the addition of language.
I’ll have to give some thought to what my dog would call me. I’m not yet sure if he sees me as a minor god or an uncooperative, but devoted, servant…
Oh my! I hope that it’s a good nick name! I suspect my dogs would each have a different name for me. Each would also have multiple names for me, depending on our relationship. Finally, age would influence my naming. My 6 month old would have a different perspective and set of names for me. My 9 year old’s names for me would reflect our history together. At least I hope that’s how it would be.
Wouldn’t it be delicious to know?
Stacy Braslau-Schneck says
Having worked in animal language research (at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Lab in Hawaii, with dolphins), I was immediately suspect of any “demonstration” of language use that doesn’t show any sort of blind observer or controls. But I’m looking forward to hearing more about this project, and having someone bring a little more scientific rigor to it.
I’m pretty sure my nickname would be tortilla chip, because if I’m eating any with my meal all he has to do to get one is go to his mat and pat the ground with his front paw as if to say, “put the chip right here”. He has me trained well…
You know, when Melody was a puppy, I had fantasies of teaching her to bring a token of some sort when she wanted something specific, like “outside”. It’s a fantasy because I’m nowhere near disciplined, structured, or patient enough to do training that complex. Maybe someday. Plus, she wants us to throw the things that she brings us, so it’s probably an uphill battle with her innate “language”.
The soundboard thing might be easier, I might try it if I can figure out a switch that an 11 lb. dog can easily trigger. She’s smart enough to fake me out with her “outside” signal when she wants more food, because her food is next to the door to the outside. When she was a puppy, I’d take her outside and notice the bowl was empty and fill it. *bonks forehead*
My dogs and cats favor calling me “servant girl”. I’m sure they mean it in the most endearing way!
I prefer “most kind and benevolent leader who loves us so well”
Lewis’s nicknames for me “mean mommy” when I shut the doors to bedrooms so he can’t zoom from room to room & squeal at the deer at sunset; “slow poke” while I put on socks & shoes, grab poop bags, etc. for first walk of the morning; “yum-yum girl” because I make him homemade food: and whatever name there is for an exhaled sigh when he crawls under the covers where all the scents of his favorite people are trapped.
I lived by myself with my Lab for 6 years before I learned that she knows my name. We were at a friend’s house and when my friend said my name, my dog would look at me. We tested it a few times. I don’t go around calling myself by name at home in front of no-one , so I’m curious how she learned it… So her name for me might be my name
Jenny Haskins says
I am very very sceptical about this. My daughter tells me my response is typically Aspergian, but the dog is CLEARLY neither Australian Cattle Dog or Stumpy-tail Cattle Dog, and unless every photo or description I’ve read of Catahoulas; is wrong neither can it be Catahoula. Staffy Cross I’d say, possibly with Kelpie. Or even pure Staffie (English) with uppy ears. If you cannot tell your own dog’s breed can you be trusted on anything else?
Then I’ve read just too much on ‘facilitated communication’ and the methods used by Spiritualists and Psychics.
Scott Thomas says
This subject, amongst others, makes think about confirmational bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect. Both of which must be further exacerbated my anthropomorphism. How does someone work around the fact that people can’t know about what they don’t know?
I suspect my dogs’ name for me is a smell. That certainly seems to be how Sophy finds people, so it is probably the most important thing about to her. I wonder if dogs think in smells, the way we think in pictures or words…
Rachel Brix says
I think it’s important to look at Chaser the Border Collie for how as professionals we might consider this case of Stella. Stella would first need to learn the words, and what the words mean. While it took a long time for Chaser to learn nouns and pronouns, and even learn cagtegories, I find it highly unlikely this dog is understanding- much less using- verbs at this point to communicate actual desires. Will look forward to more reliable data as it becomes available.
Great thread. I interpreted my dog’s lip licks as “want”, as in “I want” or “I want to”. Noticed it with one dog 20 years ago, and have been observing my others use it similarly. This is distinct from a stress related lip lick, but the difference–maybe “I want” is done in a way more obvious for human’s to be able to read it. Thanks to Ravana for bringing that one up.
Lindsay Pevny says
Stella has been everywhere lately! At first I was pretty skeptical, but looking at her Instagram account, there are a lot of examples of her building sentences in a very deliberate way. For us, starting to use potty bells opened up a really important line of communication, so I’m hoping I can think up more ways I can help my dogs “talk”! I too want to know if Stella uses her board when her mom isn’t around, if she uses it to express herself when she’s home alone.
I was so excited to see this post! I’m also a dog-loving speech-language pathologist and when I saw this video online the other day, I immediately contacted several friends in the business and said that this is what I should be doing! I specifically hoped that Dr. McConnell would comment, because I was skeptical yet fascinated. I’m familiar with the Clever Hans story and have seen it play out many times with human users of augmentative communication systems, much in the vein of facilitated communication. On the other hand, I live with my own dog and see how well she communicates non-verbally, so I’m open to the idea that this could be paired with another stimulus if trained and reinforced consistently. I’d love to see more, especially with an injection of objectivity.
My husband would ask my dog “where is Mama?” and Java would come find me, and a few times when he wouldn’t get in the truck to come home, my husband faked him out asking if he wanted to go home to mama? & then Java loaded up in a flash. So, thinking he thinks my name is Mama 😃. I asked my dog one time where Bill was (my husband) and Java brought me his Mr. Bill toy. Apparently, he doesn’t use first names.
Eustice the Sheep says
I was really hoping you’d write about this. I found her blog interesting https://www.hungerforwords.com/ and like you I am very curious about what’s really happening.
Christina talks about Stella using her devices appropriately when they were in a hotel and things were not where she was accustomed to, but I don’t know if there is video (I didn’t look). I’m really hoping that someone will study this.
I don’t know if you saw it Trish, but some time ago Saturday Night Live did a skit about a scientist that created something that let dogs talk and what the dog had to say was atrocious. I thought the same thing about this situation.
Alison Mailloux says
If it hasn’t already been suggested, definitely check out her Instagram featuring Stella @hunger4words
It has a lot more videos that show just how she uses her board to communicate! Very interesting stuff, hopefully she garners enough interest to convince someone to do some real research into it!
Hmm… I would imagine that gorillas, parrots, and dolphins can learn language because they all have social structures that already involve communicating fairly complex ideas to members of their own species in a way that suggests a type of theory of mind that is quite similar to the theory of mind that humans possess (and for the same reasons; they have a society that has a lot of culture– learned adaptive behaviors that must be actively taught to new generations– as compared to the many social animals whose societies are more based on instinct).
There is no doubt at all that dogs learn that human sounds and body language have meanings that are important to the dog. And it is likely that dogs have some level of theory of mind, since there are experiments that seem to indicate this. Moreover anyone who has dogs knows that dogs clearly attempt to communicate desires to us (though there is a very wide range here and I’ve had dogs who seemed to make little effort to communicate much at all, whereas my current Corgi has a wide range of vocalizations and body postures clearly specific to trying to draw my attention to different desires and circumstances).
But the highly advanced theory of mind that would lead a dog to determine that the best way to communicate with a human is to find a way to make the same sorts of speech sounds a human does… I guess I’m a bit skeptical. I would want experiments that show the dog is able to replicate this in different environments and with the handler out of sight to avoid giving cues. Also, I would want to know the apparent success rate of the communication, to show it’s not random. Does the dog’s choice of words indeed accurately reflect what the dog is experiencing?
My Australian Cattle Dog is a service dog who appears to understand at least 200 words and phrases so far (per my ever growing list) and can perform over 30 different service dog tasks at this point. He is not yet two years old. Because he genuinely appears to enjoy learning new concepts and tasks and is very food motivated, I started teaching him toddler-sequel games when I ran out of needed service dog tasks to teach him and because I wanted to see how much he could learn if I simply kept teaching. He can now match shapes, accurately answer yes-no questions about objects he knows the names of, and is also learning to count. We play these “games” on inclement weather days when we can’t get out to exercise. I had been following Ms. Hunger’s work for some time now before she and Stella recently blew up all over the internet and had planned to eventually try also teaching my dog to communicate in this way just to have something else to teach him. I know he would pick it up easily. He already touches yes & no buttons on an iPad and answered no when I asked if an airplane was a school bus and answered yes when I asked if it was an airplane. I was a nurse before becoming disabled and understand the scientific method and removing visual/physical cues, etc, but how would a non-research, non-scientific type person go about teaching Ms. Hunger’s method to a dog so that there wouldn’t be biases and skepticism?
Jeannette Gallagher says
This is not about a dog, but a parrot.
My African Grey once said “Good catch!” when we were watching a baseball game on TV, and the outfielder made a remarkable catch indeed. He spoke before any of the announcers or the crowd reacted.
And when I returned to playing the piano after a several-year hiatus, and got tired of taking things slow and careful and just put the pedal down and plowed through something, at the end he declared, “Bravo!” He had never said that before, but had apparently learned it from watching figure skaters on television.
He flew across the Rainbow Bridge a few years ago. I’d had him for 35 years. And yes, I miss him.
Erica Grivas says
Tina, I’m very interested in how you taught your cattledog shape matching and the other games you play. I’d love to learn more if you have a blog.