Have you ever found yourself staring deep into the soulful eyes of your pet and thinking, “I really wish you could talk”?
Americans spend $99 billion on their pets each year. But the latest hot gadget for pet owners could very well be the coolest thing ever.
You probably remember that scene from the Pixar movie Up, where Charles Muntz, the adventurer sought by Carl invented a device that let Dug and his other canines communicate.
Well, now one of the newest products taking the pet industry and social media by storm is talking buttons for pets.
It all began when Christina Hunger, a speech and language pathologist, suddenly noticed signs that her Blue Heeler mix dog — Stella — wanted to “talk.” According to Hunger, Stella showed signs that children often do before they start using words and coming up with sentences. This gave her an idea.
Communication With Pets
In 2019, Hunger began working with Stella on AAC, augmentative, and alternative communication. She provided Stella with “buttons” — devices often used in speech therapy to give patients access to a tool that lets them communicate with something other than words.
Once Hunger had modeled the buttons’ meanings, Stella quickly started adding more and more words to her vocabulary, taking social media by storm.
More and more people started experimenting with these buttons, wanting nothing more than to have communicated with their pets for years. These experiments ranged from brand new kittens, to dogs and cats that have been with their owner for years. It was the perfect time for such experimentation since most people were stuck at home due to the pandemic-induced lockdown.
Is It All a Trick?
That said, it does raise the question of whether this is just another party trick that can be taught to your furry friends through hours of repetition. After all, what if these animals follow through with these tricks because they associate the buttons with, say, more affection or treats?
There is a good reason for such skepticism, too. Historically, the relationship between animals and human methods of communication hasn’t been so great. On one hand, we have Koko, the gorilla, who learned to communicate effectively using sign language, but we cannot forget the case of Hans, the horse.
Clever Hans Effect
Hans was a horse who lived in the early 20th century and could allegedly solve simple mathematical equations. If his owner asked him, “What’s 3+4?” Hans would stomp his feet seven times, solving the equation.
Soon, though, it was revealed that Hans was basing his responses on people’s reactions. A positive response from the audience and his owner meant he was close to the correct answer. He would, thus, repeat the behavior accordingly. For example, certain sounds meant a specific number of stomps. It was as simple as that. This created what is now known as the Clever Hans Effect.
Historically, animals who learned such “tricks” also found it difficult to communicate and live with their brethren. This raises the question — is this a repetition of an age-old parlor trick?
Do These Pets Know What They Are Saying?
Do these dogs and cats really know what they are “saying”? Or are they following patterns they know will get them what they want — their owner’s affection or access to their favorite treats? Are specific dog and cat breeds more intelligent than others?
While these questions may dampen everyone’s excitement, there is reason to believe this is not just another case of the Clever Hans Effect. Instead, these pets are doing something far more interesting.
As more and more word buttons are added to their vocabulary, pets combine words to share their worldview with their humans. Billi, for example, seems to have started referring to her mom’s morning coffee as “catnip water.”
There are many other instances of other “talking” animals combining seemingly random words and creating meaningful phrases. This isn’t limited to asking for food or pets either. For example, they will ask for people and their furry companions who aren’t around. Stella often asks for her dad, “Jake,” when he isn’t at home, then presses the “happy” button when he does come home.
Considering all this, along with the universally-known fact that dogs can learn over a thousand words in their lifetime, it does seem to suggest that these pets do understand, if only up to a certain level, what they are “saying.” Intelligence in dogs and cats can be influenced by their genetics, which is why some dog and cat breeds may be able to communicate better than others. There is still an uncertainty involving more abstract terms like “love,” but animals like Billi and Stella constantly prove that they understand more than people give them credit for.
They Can Talk
Such ideas are the basis of Leo Trottier’s research project — They Can Talk. In his own words, he described the project’s motto as “Teaching language to learners who happen to not be human.” Leo Trottier is also the founder of FluentPet — a brand that devices animal-friendly buttons to help your pets communicate more efficiently.
We are, thus, in the middle of a revolution. Animal lovers and pet parents have forever known and declared that their furry companions communicate with them. But talking buttons can help remove the guesswork from the equation entirely.
Implications of Talking Buttons
Aside from the heartwarming aspect of such a development, this can have other incredible implications. Animals are now starting to point out when they are in pain or discomfort. This can help parents avoid expensive vet visits and take immediate action. Imagine how many animal lives can be saved with early intervention. Vets can use these devices to understand where it hurts and diagnose problems accordingly. Service animals could also be taught to “talk” to people if their owner cannot.
What began as a fun little experiment for Hunger in 2019 now holds extraordinary potential. And, even though science is still struggling to declare whether your cat means it when she presses the “I love you” button, imagine hearing that from your feline friend at the end of a tediously long day. That alone is enough to make this research invaluable to pet parents, even if their pet does it to get more treats.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Hi, I’m Jenny Dean, creator of Floppycats! Ever since my Aunt got the first Ragdoll cat in our family, I have loved the breed. Inspired by my childhood Ragdoll cat, Rags, I created Floppycats to connect, share and inspire other Ragdoll cat lovers around the world,