Talking dogs, really?

Do Stella and Bunny really talk? Recently, the internet has been flooded with videos of them pressing buttons on a keyboard that plays prerecorded words like “outside” or “play.”

And what’s even better, in some videos, the dogs seem to form sentences by pressing several buttons in a row (“play with daddy”). These videos were quickly interpreted as proof that any dog, with a little training, can carry on a conversation with his master.

But what does science say?

Several researchers had previously tried to dialogue with animals, such as the great apes Washoe, Koko and Kanzi, or the parrot Alex, with quite convincing results. So it’s not impossible that Stella and Bunny can actually use keyboards to communicate.

However, it must be borne in mind that to understand the words, Alex and the others were intensively trained by teams of professionals (psychologists, ethologists), up to 8 hours a day, for several years. This is not the case with Stella and Bunny: their owners are not scientists, they are not trained in training, and the dogs have been trained at a very leisurely pace and irregularly for about a year, which limits the possibilities of having so impressive results.

A study launched by FluentPet, a company that makes keyboards for animals, is being carried out in collaboration with researchers at the University of California to understand how animals can use this medium of communication. Bunny is one of the many participants. To enroll your dog in the study, you need at least a camera, but also, and most of all, a keyboard that you are strongly recommended to buy from FluentPet.

This is quite surprising, because it is very rare for study participants to put money out of their own pockets to participate in a study, it is usually the opposite! Additionally, FluentPet’s involvement suggests a troubling conflict of interest: The company might choose to stick with only the positive results, to better sell its keyboards.

Since Bunny is part of the study, his videos posted on social media are often interpreted as part of the study and are therefore understood to be reliable. However, the study is ongoing and the results have not yet been published. The videos of Bunny and Stella, which are not scientifically validated, come from the personal accounts of the teachers. The recordings are not raw, but cut and edited: does this serve to eliminate the excess, or rather to tell a beautiful story? We also don’t know how many of the trials are available: it is possible that the impressive published trials are just rare flukes. In fact, this is how Bunny’s own owner recognizes it in this video:

Video, What About Bunny.

These buzzing and dreaming videos for animal lovers can potentially be tools for marketing. Stella and Bunny’s official websites, gift shops, and on-demand books suggest that this phenomenon can be a lucrative business, and urge you to be careful about video content. Similarly, FluentPet, the company that makes some of these keyboards, pays some influencers (including Bunny’s mistress) by the number of clicks on shared links.

The potential biases

In this video, Bunny’s owner speaks to her in English, and Bunny responds with the keyboard:

Bunny, the dog that ‘talks’ / What About Bunny.

Now, the language of the “keyboard” is different from spoken English: it is derived from simplified English (there are few words on the keyboard, there are no prepositions like “to” or “of”, etc.) and is based on the use of buttons, not sounds.

Therefore, it is necessary to start from three premises to affirm that dogs talk to their owners. The first is that bitches understand English (they know the sound /ride/ refers to strolling). The second is that they dominate the language of the keyboard (a certain button refers to the fact of walking). Third, that they understand the correspondences between the two languages ​​(they know that the spoken word “walk” refers to the same thing as, for example, the pink button on the left). Thus, a dog is taught a “keyboard” language using a third language (a human language), which represents an undoubted difficulty for the animal, which does not master either of these two systems.

For the first hypothesis, it is difficult to know if the bitches understand English, it is just not proven. For the second hypothesis, it is impossible to know if female dogs really master keyboard language, for several reasons.

Some well-known and feared researchers’ biases are not controlled in these videos. The meaning of the “phrases” produced by dogs is usually reconstructed by the mistresses themselves: this bias of anthropomorphism consists in attributing human ideas or behaviors to animals. For example, when Bunny combines “sound” and “adjust” in the video below, her owner explains that Bunny recently decided to use these words to say “shut up.” How can we be sure that Bunny doesn’t mean “turn down the keyboard!”, For example? The original “phrase” is too vague to express exactly what the dog means, and what we interpret then is usually … what suits us.

Bunny ‘talking’ about cats / What about bunny.

Second, the keyboard, which is supposed to embody plain English, is also problematic because the button layout is anthropocentric. For example, words are grouped by grammar class (one set of buttons for names like cat, another for verbs like play, etc.), which doesn’t necessarily make sense from a canine perspective. Although it is likely that dogs have their own language, it is unlikely that this keyboard is a good embodiment of it, intuitive to use.

A classic bias in psychology is the “clever Hans” effect, named for a horse famous for its ability to answer complex questions by tapping its hoof on the ground, but actually using the behavioral cues of its audience (for example, the tilt of their heads) to know when to stop hitting the ground. In the Bunny or Stella videos, we cannot rule out the hypothesis that their owners are giving, intentionally or not, clues about the “correct button” that they should press (by the look, the orientation of the body…). Above all, because we cannot see what is happening behind the camera.

The “Morgan canon” states that we should not attribute higher-level cognitive abilities to animals if their actions can be explained by lower-level abilities. Therefore, in the absence of repeated controlled psychological experiments, we should avoid claiming that these dogs speak on keyboards, and formulate simpler and safer hypotheses.

The simplest explanations

It is possible to account for these observations without concluding that the female dogs really understand the meaning of the words used. In particular, it is not possible to rule out the idea that associations are established only between a behavior (pressing the “toy” button) and a consequence (playing with the toy).

In other words, it is possible to learn to claim the toy by pressing the appropriate button, without really understanding that it is a word or understanding the word, just as BF Skinner’s rats knew which lever to press to get food or drink without knowing how to speak. . This is especially true for buttons with abstract or complex meanings, such as “foreign” or “I love you.”

Human language is a productive and generative system: once the basic rules are mastered, an infinite number of sentences can be generated with a limited number of words. In this case, there is no evidence that female dogs have that ability. It is quite possible that these combinations are fixed sequences, learned by dogs to trigger a specific response. For example, they may have learned that when they press “play” and then “ball”, they play ball. Similarly, when you press a button and put a coin in a vending machine, you get a can of soda, but you cannot conclude that you are talking to the machine.

Some of the word combinations also seem to suggest that the bitches choose them arbitrarily, until they get it right. For example, in this video, the owner interprets the combination “come play” followed by “I do want to eat” as “Stella wants food put into her toy.” Stella, like any dog, is happy to receive food, but this does not mean that she deliberately asked for it.

A more parsimonious explanation is that, given the lack of reaction from her mistress to “come play”, Stella limited herself to pressing other buttons, inconsistently, to trigger a response in her owner that benefits her. Furthermore, in this video, Bunny’s owner explains that the less she responds to her dog’s requests, the messier the combinations are produced.

How to check if dogs speak?

We have seen that dogs must master two languages, English and keyboard, to communicate properly with their owner. To facilitate learning and verify that the dogs master the language of the keyboard, they must be totally immersed in it: all communication must be done only through the keyboard, without ever using spoken words.

The dogs must then be shown to understand the meaning of the words used. In the same way that the Chaser dog has been tested, commands can be given via the keyboard: if they understand combinations that they have never heard before, it can be concluded that they understand the meaning of each word. For example, if from “touch a ball” and “pick up a teddy”, a dog can understand “touch a teddy”, it is that he is able to extract the meaning of each word. Once this check is done, we can do other experiments to analyze your production capacity.

It is not impossible for Stella and Bunny to use these keyboards as language, but in the absence of more scientific evidence, we must be cautious. However, we can recognize that these keyboards stimulate the intelligence of dogs, keep them busy and strengthen the bond with their owners.

One last crucial point: we don’t need tricks of marketing to communicate with our pets: many studies show that we already understand each other very well. So, trust yourself!

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