Dogs with something to say press buttons for words in UCSD cognition study
Guests at a colloquium at UC San Diego gathered recently to recognize a community science project: testing animal cognition.
The event was catered, but not with dog food. Too bad for Osky and Mila, who you could argue were guests of honor.
They are two of many dogs who are communicating with their owners by touching buttons on a soundboard.
“She uses attention words like ‘scritches’ and ‘love you’ a lot,” said Taylor Arco, Mila’s owner. “She also likes to ask for ‘walk’ and she never lets us forget when it’s time to eat. So, ‘eat’.”
Arco is talking about the word-buttons Mila pushes with her nose on her soundboard at home. The soundboard is an array of buttons set into plastic tiles that owners can arrange however they want. The buttons say things like 'play,' 'potty,' 'outside,' 'eat' and 'scritches,' which are scratchy caresses dogs like.
Taylor Arco is one of 1,200 people in 47 countries expected to provide data about their dogs' ability to communicate. Scientists at UC San Diego are leading what they call the biggest community science project ever done on animal communication. Dogs use soundboards, whose buttons they press with a paw or a nose, to communicate humans words, thoughts — maybe even sentences.
Some of the dogs in the project have become stars on social media. Arco said her dog Mila, who now uses 31 different words, has more than 240,000 followers on Instagram.
“So our goal was never to hit a certain word count or a certain number of followers," Arco said. "Our goal was just to improve her quality of life. So, as long as she has a need to communicate or a need for new words, we’ll continue."
The project is led by UC San Diego cognitive scientist Federico Rossano. He said the goal of studying cognition in animals is to understand what is uniquely human and what kind of thinking is shared with other creatures.
And there’s a reason why they have the dogs use soundboards, whose buttons are labeled with symbols and which announce a word when pressed.
“We try to see whether A — they can learn symbols, like for example human children could, and B — once you teach them this, what kind of use do they make of these tools?” Rossano said. “Do you start seeing them do what a human child would do, which is when you get to 40-50 words you start putting them together into sentences?”
Can dogs form sentences?
Based on the evidence he’s seen so far, Rossano gives a qualified “yes.” He said it has become his working hypothesis.
“So, for example, Bunny, the most famous participant in our study, would say things like ‘dog want cat down,’” Rossano said. "She’s saying, ‘I want the cat that is sitting up there to come down.’ And she would literally push all those buttons, one after the other.”
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.
The dog communication study had its origin with the company FluentPet, which designs and sells the soundboards many dogs — including Bunny — use.
FluentPet Chief Executive Officer Leo Trottier has a background in cognitive science. He said he started a conversation with Bunny’s owner, and they began recruiting people to use the FluentPet board to collect data for a possible study.
“And it was at that point that I emailed Federico Rossano at UC San Diego and said ‘Hey, we’ve got this really large subject pool,” Trotter said “We’ve got these really remarkable dogs that are doing things we never would have expected. And would you be interested in looking at some of this data?’”
There is a risk in studying animal intelligence, and that’s overinterpretation, which means seeing what you want to see in an animal's behavior.
Trottier cites the famous example of Hans the Horse, who people thought could do math. You’d ask him what’s three plus seven and he'd stamp his foot ten times. People soon realized that those who were watching Hans would exhale or make a satisfied expression when he reached the correct answer.
“That led to what is called the Clever Hans Effect,” said Trottier, “Where animals pay attention to subtle cues that we might not even recognize that we’re giving off in order to provide us with the answers we might want to see.”
Rossano said the solution to overinterpretation is more data and more careful analysis. For instance, if a dog asks for something from a human, and the human doesn’t respond, it should make the same request a second time. That means the dog understood what he was saying the first time.
Rossano said that this research could lead to benefits for dogs and for humans. What if a law enforcement dog, inspecting luggage, could tell you, ‘smell gun’ or ‘smell bomb’?
One of the dog owners in the UC San Diego study, Alli Straus, said she wishes her dog, Osky, could do what Bunny does, and tell her when it hurts.
“To get him to press 'ouch' or press 'help,' or press 'hurt,' 'sad' — because, you know, it would be really nice for him,” Straus said. “Because I don’t want him to suffer. I don’t want him to be in pain.”