At Hunger for Words, we’re pioneering new avenues of interspecies communication, starting with Stella, the world’s first talking dog.
I’m Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist. When I brought my new puppy, Stella, home, I realized she demonstrated many of the same pre-linguistic communication skills as toddlers do right before they start talking, which is when I was struck with an idea! I used Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices in my practice to help my patients express themselves with words. Since dogs can understand words, could Stella use an AAC device to express herself the same way my patients did?
Bunny and her cohort are part of a long legacy of the search for human-like communication and cognition in animals. There are famous non-human primate examples like Kanzi, the bonobo who has memorized hundreds of symbols on a special keyboard. There are also dogs like Chaser, who could remember the names of over 1,000 objects. The researchers at UC San Diego are less interested in how many symbols or words Bunny can memorize, and more in how her vocabulary might lend to meaningful communication with humans.
They’re also looking at how much the animals seem to be exhibiting properties that are generally claimed to be uniquely human, like temporal and spatial displacement, or the ability to make observations and form narratives. When Bunny asks “Where, Dad” does that mean she has a sense of spatial displacement, where she is aware of “Dad” and acknowledging that he is not present in the room with her? When another dog presses “Water, Outside,” is that an observation about the rain, or is it a request?
Like many devoted dog owners, Alexis Devine spends hours every day sitting in her living room talking to her dog, Bunny. The peculiar thing is that Bunny “talks” back. Scroll through Devine’s TikTok page and you’ll see a stream of videos that follow the same general pattern. Bunny stands next to a collection of buttons on the floor, raises a paw, and presses down. The prerecorded buttons sound off in the order she presses them: “More, Scritches, Now.”
One of the most interesting recent introductions to Bunny’s board, at the prompting of researchers, has been words that are related to concepts of time, including “morning,” “evening,” “yesterday,” and “tomorrow.” There’s not much known about how dogs might conceptualize time. Lisa Gunter, a research fellow at Arizona State University who has worked with dogs with separation anxiety, thinks dogs likely have a concept of duration, “but who’s to say how they would describe it.”
The next step, anticipated for winter 2021, is to send researchers to the animals’ homes to conduct more controlled experiments. Will the dogs be able to produce the same seemingly remarkable behaviors with outside researchers that they regularly display for their owners? These experiments will be critical in drawing any conclusions about exactly how much they understand.