Woof twice for yes

POSTED: December 8, 2020

Dogs apparently can learn to assemble sentences by pressing buttons in order. They can apparently talk sensibly and make their opinions known.

From today’s Guardian online:

Helmed by Dr Federico Rossano, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of California San Diego, and Leo Trottier, a PhD candidate, project They Can Talk is one of the latest in a decades-long series of psycholinguistic studies seeking to document non-humans expressing themselves in language-like ways. But unlike many studies of the past, which either focused on the learning capacity of a single star animal – like Koko the gorilla, Kanzi the chimpanzee, or Rico the dog – They Can Talk is an unusually large, open-source citizen science study.

More than 1,000 dogs, 50 cats and a few horses are involved in the project – with more applicants every day.

Yet there would be no They Can Talk at all if there was not first the work of Christina Hunger, a San Diego speech-language pathologist who began training Stella, her Catahoula/blue heeler mix, as a puppy in 2018.

Inspired by the behavioral similarities she perceived between Stella and preverbal toddlers, she ordered a box of four recordable buttons and started off with a few of them each programmed to say a different word. “My initial intention was just to teach her a few words to express some basic needs to help us communicate a bit better, but we just kept progressing,” Hunger says.

Today, Stella can use her expanded button set-up – itself a kind of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device not unlike those used by humans with language problems – to seemingly convey concepts with combinations of up to five words at a time.

Another dog, Bunny, also participates in this programme. “By engaging with concepts of time and space, Bunny is also a good representative of what researchers hope to see: pets who are able to go beyond first-order associations, demanding, for example, food or attention, and who rather suggest the capacity for things like syntax and conceptual contextualization.“

Read the whole article. It has a lot of interesting things going for it: the use of citizen science, the commercialisation of the equipment, and the possibility that dogs might prove to have opinions on a wide range of issues.

Or not.