Unleashing the Truth: The Case of the Talking Dog
Keira Moore, PH-D, BCBA-D
If you've scrolled through social media recently, chances are you've seen the talking dog videos. Bunny, a famous black and white Doodle, is featured on Netflix's The Hidden Lives of Pets. Bunny and other dogs are typically shown having a verbal dialogue with their human "parents" by pressing speech buttons associated with words or phrases. On the surface, these lovely dogs seem to be contemplating their self-identity, showing emotions by saying, "I love you," and understanding abstract concepts like now or later. Being the sucker for pet videos that I am, I want this to be true. Who doesn't want to know what our little friends really think?! However, the scientist in me struggles to see this as anything more than entertainment.
What Do We Know?
There's plenty of content written by critics debunking talking dogs. One relevant point is the "Clever Hans" effect when owners subtly cue their dogs which button to press. Others point to carefully crafted clips only showing us times the dogs were successful. Some state the videos demonstrate a phenomenon psychologists call "apophenia," a tendency for humans to make connections and meaning of unrelated things.
A current study conducted by a group called They Can Talk claims to be reviewing owner-submitted videos with a "rigorous scientific approach to determine whether, and if so, how and how much non-humans can express themselves in language-like ways." However, as their name suggests, the group's efforts seem biased and void of real scientific "rigor." The study is sponsored by the CEO of Clever Pet, the same company that sells the talking buttons in the videos. Participants are encouraged to buy Fluent Pet products to enroll in the study. In addition, Bunny, the famous dog, is a Fluent Pet "brand influencer," and the owner gets paid for generated sales.
The dogs' speech buttons are considered augmented assistive communication (AAC) devices. These devices are used by individuals with speech or other physical disabilities to understand and communicate using expressive language. The idea is that specific buttons, pictures, or symbols are conditioned to represent phrases, words, and letters without requiring the individual to speak themselves. As we know from decades of research teaching humans to use these devices, they take painstaking, deliberate, and careful work to get right.
Who is Right?
So far, all we have is conjecture. Bunny's owner and many other pet owners are convinced their animals can talk like humans. Skeptics (like me) are convinced there are more plausible alternative explanations for what we see in these viral videos. Watch one of the videos. What do you think?
In this heavily shared video, Bunny appears to say her paw hurts due to a "stranger," later identified as foxtail, in her foot. Bunny initiated "mad," then after a pause and owner-led cueing, pushed the button for "ouch." The video then jumps to a scene where Bunny accidentally presses the "stranger" button when scratching her ear. When asked, "where stranger?" Bunny then hits the button for her paw.
The edited clips and questionable inferences are on display. The owner even notes Bunny has been using "ouch" in different contexts, suggesting she hits this button often for other things. The owner "cueing" Bunny how to respond in this clip is most evident at the end when the owner calls her over and subtly puts out her hand prompting Bunny to give a paw. The video jumps ahead again to show a foxtail pulled out of matted fur on that paw.
To Bunny's owner, her dog communicates her feelings, wants, and needs. However, this video appears to be just a dog hitting conveniently located buttons, then repeating this behavior when rewarded with attention by her owner. This is a textbook example of operant conditioning - behavior that gets rewarded is repeated.
The Science of Talking