April 13th, 2023
If Dogs Could Speak
I cannot count the amount of times I looked into the huge brown eyes of my dog Nugget and wondered what exactly was going on in there. Adopted at 10 years old, we only knew her as an old dog, but it seemed she had 2 brain cells to rub together on a good day. Sure, she knew her name but I am certain she purposefully ignored us calling her. Especially if she was on a particularly comfortable bed. If only she could speak back, ask for another 10 minutes and we could reach some sort of compromise. She unfortunately passed away two years ago. It turns out if I’d searched if dogs could speak with buttons a bit earlier, I may have been able to figure something out.
Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist has done just that. Her beautiful Catahoula/Blue Heeler called Stella has been learning to talk over the past few years. With the assistance of buttons. There’s about 37 buttons on a board which, when pressed, speak words ranging from ‘inside’ and ‘water’ to ‘look’ and ‘come’. Stella uses them regularly, not just to express wishes but even to chat – as much as a puppy can.
It’s important for me to say, right at the beginning of this blog, that this is an opinion piece. I am in no way a behavioural specialist in veterinary medicine. I’m shooting ideas out into the void. If you are a behavioural specialist, I would love if you could comment below because I want to hear what you think! Personally, I’m a bit conflicted. Stella seems to understand in a way, but I’m not sure how deep that understanding goes.
Stella is obviously intelligent, she has made the connection between the buttons and the reward. Maybe that’s about it though? Press the food button, get food. Press the water button, have her water bowl filled up. On the other hand, she’s responded to her owners statement ‘Stella all done eat’ at the end of her breakfast, with ‘no’. She then walked back to her dish and started licking her lips. Signifying that she wants more food or are we creating a story from nothing? Maybe she’s just a really intelligent dog, not all dogs speak with buttons but she can?
Perhaps it’s about intonation. Almost any dog owner knows that intonation can make a huge difference. ‘We’re going out now’ with an uprising intonation gets a different reaction compared to the same statement with a downswing intonation. Nugget used to sulk when we said “Time to go out” with a downswing intonation. If we said it with an uprising intonation her tail went Mach 3. It could have been because we raised our eyebrows, or smiled, or did any of the unconscious movements that come with communication. Maybe she understood us. In Stella’s case, her buttons are pre-recorded and replayed in exactly the same tone. Christina’s responses aren’t immune to inflection and intonation, so maybe there’s an element of variability there.
There was a horse once, Hans the horse. For years there were people convinced that he was intelligent and capable of simple mathematics.… Until it turned out that that he was noticing the facial expressions of the questioner and responding in turn. That’s still intelligence though! Just a different sort than we thought.
Maybe, just maybe, we should give the dog some credit where it’s due. She’s learning far more than I think anyone could expect, and Christina Hunger is putting in a serious amount of work and commitment to train Stella. What do you think, can dogs speak with buttons?
Over the years of telling family that I want to be a veterinarian, or that I’m a veterinary student, or that I’m a vet, people are constantly bringing up ‘That must be difficult, animals can’t tell you where it hurts!’. And it’s true! We fill in the gaps with taking a history or performing a clinical exam. We watch behaviour and perform diagnostics. But imagine how incredible it would be to have a dog come in and speak to you. You won’t reinforce the idea of veterinary clinic = uncomfortable. You minimise pain and stress. Patient input, but to the nth degree. Your teeth hurt? Excellent let’s do a more in-depth oral exam. Your abdomen hurts? Okay great, let’s palpate and do an ultrasound. Feeling nauseous? Hard to breathe? Getting tired easily? Let’s figure it out together.
Asking for animals to be able to talk is a fantasy with a dash of naïvety but training them isn’t entirely out of the question. Then again it might be a bit of a stretch to ask clients to train their dogs to speak, but a veterinarian can dream!
Written by Teresa Hamilton
A wonderfully written article in Slate magazine that I’d recommend you look at:
Hans the horse, briefly mentioned but a fascinating story: