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By Using Floor Buttons, Can Dogs Talk?

Photo credit: droїd, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Science writer Stephanie Pappas looked recently at the latest fad in communicating with dogs: Paw-friendly floor button sets that the dog can press (potty, play, come, etc.), available for US$20– $200. The anecdotes about the things dogs have thus told their loving humans practically write themselves:

On TikTok, some of these “button dogs” seem to be doing surprisingly intelligent things, such as combining two words to create a unique meaning — “squeaker” and “car,” to refer to an ambulance, for example. One of the more famous members of this doggie bunch on TikTok, a sheepadoodle named Bunny, can apparently put together four-word phrases. In one instance, for example, she pushed buttons to refer to her friend: “Tenrec, come, look, play.”

Stephanie Pappas, “Can Dogs Use Language?” Scientific American, August 22, 2023

But What Is Really Going on with These Buttons?

Here’s a question we should ask with respect to chimpanzees, dogs, smart crows, and all other life forms in whose intelligence humans have chosen to take an interest: If a species can really engage in abstract thought, why is that species, left to itself, living the life of an animal that cannot do so? Many animal species could avoid considerable suffering, endangerment, or extinction if only they could use abstract thought. Yet it never seems to happen except as a result of a widely advertised new gimmick or sophisticated experiment designed by humans.

Well, at least one party involved can and does use abstract thought: the human(s) who designed the device or experiment. Pappas points out:

In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, several experiments attempted to take chimpanzees and other great apes and integrate them into human households to see if they could learn language. Reports of the primates generating new language were often anecdotal and poorly documented. After the experiments, many of these primates were returned to primate research centers, where they struggled to adapt and often became violent or depressed.

Stephanie Pappas, “Can Dogs Use Language?”

Legends about animals that could think and speak like people have popped up every so often in pop science literature in recent decades, endorsed by celebs like Carl Sagan (1934–1996). They meet a need. But Pappas invites us to consider how much of what we hear is confirmation bias.That is, a human already believes that his dog can understand what he is saying very well and has spent several hundred dollars on prominently placed paw buttons to prove it.

Something like that may well have happened with Bunny, the famous TikTok dog:

Of all the dogs who’ve become stars on social media, Bunny is the biggest. She’s a sheep-a-doodle in Washington state who has millions of followers on TikTok. In one very well-known video, Bunny tells her owner something is wrong. She presses the soundboard buttons for “mad” and then “ouch.”

“Where ouch?” asked Alexis Devine, Bunny’s owner. Bunny responds by pressing the button that says “paw.”

“In your paw?” asked Devine. After that, Bunny comes to her owner who finds the wooden spike of a foxtail stuck in the dog’s left paw.

Thomas Fudge, “Dogs with something to say press buttons for words in UCSD cognition study,” KPBS, June 22, 2022. 

But animal behaviorist and marine biologist KP offers a very different assessment of what is happening with Bunny — and incidentally provides a fine workshop in what confirmation bias in this area looks like:

The human — automatically and understandably — fills in for the dog.

Best Way to Communicate with a Dog: Offer Approval for Good Behavior

Incidentally, a 2018 study found that the best way to communicate with dogs isn’t by teaching them human words anyway:

When the pups heard “piggy” or “monkey,” there wasn’t much of a change in brain activity. When they heard gibberish, however, there was greater activation in the auditory regions of the brains. That’s the opposite of what happens when humans undergo the same experiment: We demonstrate greater neural activation when we hear words we know. … While humans will always default to verbal commands for their pets, this study underscores the fact that language isn’t the best way to communicate with a dog. The more effective way to communicate with a dog is through visual and scent cues.

Sarah Sloat, “Dog Brains Reveal How Much Human Language They Actually Understand,” Inverse, October 16, 2018 

So we have gone a long way around to discover what we knew already from long experience: Dogs love and need people and want to please them but they don’t think deeply or abstractly. Nor should they need to.

Other recent research has found, in any event, that dogs understand many more words than we usually think. It should be no surprise that it is abstractions, a specifically human thought characteristic, that dogs don’t really get. Dogs pick up very readily on human emotions though. That is no surprise because there may be a genetic basis for their ability to adapt to living with humans. When dog pups have been compared with wolf pups, the difference was apparent.

We’ve been through this before, of course: If we are looking for someone to really talk to, that must still really be a human.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.