Epistemic status: highly suggestive.
[EDIT: Added more info on research methods. Addressed some common criticism. Added titles for video links and a few new vids. Prevented revolution with a military coup d'état]
A combination of surveys and bayesian estimates leads me to believe this community is interested in autism, cats, cognition, philosophy, and moral valence of animals. What I’m going to show you checks every box, so it boggles my mind that I don't see anyone talk about it. It has been bothering me so much that I decided to create an account and write this article.
I have two theories.
The community will ignore fascinating insight just because its normie coded. Cute tiktok-famous poodle doesn't pattern match to "this contains real insight into animal cognition".
Nobody tried to sell this well enough.
I personally believe in the second one and I'll try to sell it to you.
There’s an intervention to help non-verbal autistic kids communicate using “communication boards” (not to be confused with facilitated communication which has a bad reputation). It can be a paper board with pictures or it can be a board with buttons that say a word when pressed. In 2018 Christina Hunger (hungerforwords.com) - a speech pathologist working with autistic children using such boards - started to wonder if her dog was in fact autistic. Just kidding, she saw similarities in patterns of behavior between young kids she was working with ("learner" seems to be the term of art) and her dog. So she gave it a button that says “Outside” and expanded from there.
Now teaching a dog to press a button that says “outside” is not impressive or interesting to me. But then she kept adding buttons and her dog started to display capabilities for rudimentary syntax.
Stella the talking dog compilation - Stella answers whether she wants to play or eat, asks for help when one of her buttons breaks, alerts owner to possible "danger" outside.
(most of the good videos are on her Instagram @hunger4words, not much is on YouTube)
Reaction from serious animal language researchers and animal cognition hobbyists was muted to non-existent, but dog moms ate this stuff up. One of them was Alexis.
Most useful research is impractical to do within academia
The Importance of Methodology and Practical Matters
Ethology has some really interesting lessons about how important various practical matters and methodology can be when it comes to what your field can (and can't) produce. For example, it turns out that a surprising amount of useful data about animal cognition comes from experiments with dogs. […] The main reason is because they will sit still for an fMRI to be the goodest boy (and to get hot dogs). […] On the other side of that coin, elephants are clearly very smart, but we've done surprisingly little controlled experiments or close observation with them. Why? […] They're damn inconvenient to keep in the basement of the biology building, they mess up the trees on alumni drive, and undergrads kept complaining about elephant-patty injuries while playing ultimate on the quad.
A lot of useful research isn't done because it's too inconvenient, too expensive or otherwise impractical to execute within confines of academia. This is a massive shaping force. Existence of ImageNet and its quirks is a stronger shaping force on AI research than all AI ethics committees combined.
Nobody had done this before because it takes months of everyday training to get interesting results. Once your dog gets the hang of it, you’re able to add more buttons faster, but it’s never quick. Dogs take a while to come up with a response (they’re bright, but they’re not humans), and you can’t force your dog to learn, so you have to work together and find motivation (for the dog and for yourself!). And not every pet has a strong desire to communicate.
But it may be practical to do for a layperson
Lucky for us, Alexis has many more commendable qualities besides willing to spend time and effort on her dog. She maintains healthy skepticism, she's well aware of confirmation bias and "Clever Hans" effects and of the danger of over-interpreting the dog's output. She has partnered with researches from University of California, San Diego to have several cameras looking at the button pad running 24/7, for them to do more rigorous study.
Please watch this vid first where she gives a brief explanation of what she's doing, and importantly shows her attitude and skepticism towards her dog's "talking". She even namedrops Chomsky & Skinner 😄
Study by Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of California, San Diego
I encourage you to read their research methodology page yourself. Here's a summary:
This is an ongoing study with hundreds of participants and a mission to "use a rigorous scientific approach to determine whether, and if so, how and how much non-humans are able to express themselves in language-like ways". It's headed by Prof. Federico Rossano, Director of Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego and Leo Trottier, PhD Candidate, UC San Diego. The latter has websites selling dog soundboards and interactive pet toys, indicating a potential conflict of interest, but I also don't want to knock him for simply being enterpreneural.
They mention previous research with a dog named Rico and a border collie named Chaser (video of Chaser) that had rigorous experiments performed with an opaque barrier between the dog and the experimenter to preclude possibility of unwittingly influencing the dog's behavior. In those studies dogs were able to recognize 200+ toys by spoken name and perform fast-mapping (better known in some circles as one-shot learning). Encouraged by the studies they aim to ask:
Is what we're seeing clever dogs or merely Clever Hans? Can we explain the surprising button pressing behavior we're seeing using a simple first-order associative learning model, or will we have to reconsider the idea that language is an ability that is 'uniquely human'? And do we see any change in the type and complexity of communications that non-human animals (and dogs in particular) generate once they are able to use concepts that have been associated with buttons?
They're splitting the study into 3 phases:
- Initial data collection, where they gather information about learners, their owners, methods of training and have participants log reports about when a specific word was first introduced, used in an appropriate context and used as part of a multi-button expression.
- Video collection and analysis, where they get participants to install at least one video camera pointing at the soundboard that records every interaction. That allows them to see how button usage changes over time and to measure behavior more reliably and precisely.
- Interactive studies: "Based heavily on the insights gained in phases 1 and 2, we will be piloting direct, controlled tests of learner sound button use and understanding that aim to determine how language-like learners' sound button use is. We anticipate that these will be done with a smaller number of participants."
Things I've seen the dog (appear to) do that surprised me
Bunny is creative with the limited button vocabulary available to her and tries to use words in novel ways to communicate: "stranger paw" for splinter in her paw, "sound settle" for shut up, "poop play" for fart, "paw" to refer to owner's hand.
Talking With Bunny | Ouch, Stranger! - this video was what first made me decide to follow Bunny more closely
Bunny "Talking" About Cats - "sound settle cat bye" to tell meowing cat to shut up. Also note how she reacts to the possibly random button presses after 2:13 and the big note about confirmation bias that she put in the video.
Bunny knows each of her doggy friends by name, thinks about them when they're not there, asks where they are, requests to play with them.
Bunny and Friends - Bunny "Talking" About Her Friends - note how Alexis wasn't sure how to explain the concept of her dog friend's "home" and how Bunny cleared it up
Bunny understands times of day like today, morning, afternoon, night.
And can recall what time of day she went to the park.
Talking With Bunny | When Bunny Went Park (Hmm?) - mind the note that says the question was suggested by UCSD scientists to test Bunny's episodic memory
Bunny is quite obsessed over her bowel movements (how Freudian) and about her owners' poop cycle.
Bunny "Talking" About Number 2 - Bunny The "Talking" Dog - note how she appears to use "poop play" to mean "fart".
Bunny communicates emotional states like mad, happy, concerned. And "ugh".
Bunny wants to know what and why is a "dog".
And whether Mom used to be a dog. And she seems to recognize herself in the mirror.
There's a long-running debate about whether human brains possess a special ability for language. Although "feral" human children who are raised with no language lose the ability to pick it up later in life. Maybe they could learn button talk, I don't think anyone tried for lack of steady supply of feral children.
But what I see is strongly suggestive that language facilities are not unique to us and a dog that is given ability to produce words and is taught from puppyhood with the same massive amount of effort that we put into human children will be able to talk. Don't get me wrong, I don't expect dogs to start writing poetry and doing particle physics. But I expect them to produce something that can undoubtedly be called language.
It's all "Clever Hans"
I don't think this can be explained by classic Clever Hans where the owner tells the dog what to do with subconscious cues. You see lots of interactions where the dog is supposed to make a decision and the owner doesn't know the right answer, or the dog alerts the owner to something they're unaware of.
When Bunny used "stranger paw" to indicate a splinter in her paw, how was the owner supposed to influence the answer without even being aware of the splinter?
It's all operant conditioning
First, it can't be all just conditioning. By induction: pets already communicate with owners to request things, teaching your dog to press "Food" instead of barking or "Outside" instead of scratching at the door simply changes the modality. Usage of simple buttons like that doesn't require clever hans or conditioning as an explanation.
Second, look at this video of Billi the cat. Assuming it's just conditioning, we'd expect the cat to always go "yes food" when asked about food, because it doesn't understand "yes" or "no". But here we see it getting practically railroaded by the owner and still refusing food, and in several different ways (first "no", then "all done later"). How could this happen if it was just simple conditioning?
The owners over-interpret and anthropomorphize the button "speech"
The is the biggest danger in my opinion. Hopefully with rigorous analysis during the study and specifically set up experiments we'll be able to understand better at what level of communication the dogs actually are.
Interestingly, at least for humans, misinterpretation may be a necessary requirement for language acquisition, as mentioned in this comment! The short summary of the mechanism:
- Toddler raises arms up randomly with no intention.
- Mother thinks he wants to be held, so picks him up.
- Toddler learns the association and the next time he raises his arms, it's an intentional attempt at communication. Similarly for words, say "maa" randomly, mother comes and smiles excitedly, the association is built.
I think the videos are fake
I wrote a comment on that and I think the videos are done in good faith. Of course this doesn't preclude other problems, Clever Hans was in good faith too, after all.
This doesn't look like real science, it's just "dog moms" enjoying a fun hobby, YouTube videos aren't evidence of anything.
Early stage science often looks like "messing around", before theory and rigor is built. Telling what "messing around" is likely to be fruitful is a meta-rational skill, and it can be done, somewhat.
YouTube (and especially Instagram and TikTok) videos go against usual aesthetic sensibilities of what evidence looks like, but that's not a reason to discount them completely. They still constitute a lot of evidence, albeit the kind that is weak and easy to misinterpret. If we're to be good rationalists, we can't exclude the messy parts of the world and then expect to arrive at a useful worldview.
The work on the ground being done by laymen may be a blessing in disguise - I won't be surprised if taking a formal and procedural approach to training would "ruin the magic" and lead to poor results. Especially if mutual misinterpretation is an important part of the mechanism. I hope that given the number of participants in the study and the amount of data (every interaction recorded) and well-designed experiments will together let us separate signal from the noise.
So what, you ask, some apes have been taught sign language and they produced rudimentary syntax as well.
For starters you wouldn't predict dogs to be capable of the same, and it's significant to see that ability given their evolutionary distance from us (even with selective breeding pressure from domestication).
Most of the ape research was done in the 70s, and it is, well, very 70s. Those things aren't known for being well-run or replicating well. And it was done with sign language, perhaps buttons are much more conductive to language acquisition. Since the 70s craze, it apparently became unfashionable, and nothing new happened for decades. To this day any conversation on animal language is about Koko (who died in 2018) and the parrot who said "love you, bye" before dying in 2007. Utter stagnation.
What we have is something new, orders of magnitude easier to study and reproduce (how many of you have gorillas at home?), massive PR potential, modern tech that allows you to have cameras running 24/7 to preclude criticism. It started with an outsider to the field, who wasn't conceptionally limited by prior art. And it's accessible to regular people, potentially revolutionizing our relationship with our pets.
This raises the natural question: what if you gave an ape the buttons, and taught it from childhood, and put parent-level effort into it, not "70s research”-level effort? Perhaps the answer would surprise us.
[EDIT: Exactly this has been attempted with bonobos, but unfortunately little data is available and the experiment disintegrated over human drama. Read the linked comment for details and a few existing videos]
A cat who initially became famous for pressing "MAD MAD MAD" at a slightest inconvenience, but she has meollowed out a bit.
Mom’s Choice - appears to ask "mom" what she wants to play. Normally mom is the one asking her what toy she wants to play.
Imposter - an important video. In it, Billi repeatedly refuses food, despite the owner practically railroading her. With simple conditioning you could expect "want food hm?" -> "yes food" from the cat, without understanding of what "yes" or "no" is. But if all of this is just clever conditioning, why did this video happen?
Community of people trying to replicate this, ran by the people running the UCSD study.
“Maybe later” at substack for trying in vain to tell others about this, only to be summarily ignored. I got your back, buddy.
aka blindly trusted stereotypes ↩︎
Normie blindspot does exist in the community, but that's kind of obvious and expected, and should be a separate article. ↩︎
Possibly, they're not clear on the number of participants. I personally find it hard to believe that there would be more than about a hundred. ↩︎
In the layman sense of "tool for communication". Philosophical discussions about the exact border between non-language communication and "true language" aren't really interesting to me. Duck typing, etc. ↩︎