Parker’s first word, at 6 months old, was “outside,” followed very soon after by “play.”
Big words for a 6-month-old, but apt ones because Parker is a dog. She “talks” using a sound board, a collection of buttons that are large enough for a paw to easily manipulate and utter a recorded word when pressed. Parker, a bright-eyed Beagle-dominant mutt, started with six buttons: “outside” and “play” but also “water,” “food,” “toy,” and “all done.” Now, at the age of 2 1/2, she has command of 109 words.
“She’s just a very curious dog,” says her owner, Sascha Crasnow. Crasnow added words to Parker’s board when it seemed as if Parker needed them. After “outside” proved a favorite but too-broad word, she added “backyard,” “front yard,” “park,” and “field.” Crasnow also added conceptual words, such as “busy,” “stranger,” “friend,” and “visit”; emotional states such as “frustrated” and “happy”; relational and social words such as “help,” “I don’t understand,” and “love you”; “ouch” to express pain and various body parts to pinpoint its location; and even time-related words such as “tomorrow” and “before.”
The buttons are affixed to interlocking hexagonal tiles of different colors that group similar concepts together — people or places there, verbs here, social words there, descriptive and emotional words here. Crasnow says Parker uses the buttons to request medicine to soothe her acid reflux, ask to visit the yarn store (where she gets a lot of attention), and complain — by smashing the buttons for “device” and “all done” repeatedly — when Crasnow spends too much time on her phone. Parker also apparently uses them to make observations, like the time she noticed that one of Crasnow’s friends was in the bathroom and commented “human poop potty.” She has, Crasnow says, combined words to express novel concepts, such as pairing “squeaky” and “car” to describe an ambulance. And she’s seemingly able to take a general word and apply it to multiple concepts: “She has a water button and she’ll press it when she is out of water and needs more water, sure. But she also presses it when she sees me walking by with the plants in the morning because I’m watering the plants,” says Crasnow.
There are, of course, many skeptics — including fellow pet owners — who question how much of Parker’s button-pressing is her “talking” and how much of it is Crasnow’s generous interpretation. Critical cognitive scientists and animal behaviorists have described the use of button systems like this one as conditioning at best and at worst randomness that we humans project meaning onto.
But there are enough indications that something real is going on that Parker and other animals who use sound boards are part of a large research study.
Though few other dogs and cats are calling out humans for pooping (yet), Parker is by no means the only animal showing signs of remarkable linguistic flexibility — other button-using animals include cats, cows, horses, rabbits, even guinea pigs. And for some cognitive scientists, the sound boards represent an opportunity to raise the blinds on a smudged window into animal cognition, helping us to better understand what animals are thinking and feeling.
So if this is all real and not overinterpretation by humans, it raises a whole bunch of questions about animal cognition and what we, the humans, ought to do with it. If animals experience much richer inner lives than we generally acknowledge, does that change our ethical and moral obligations to them? If it does for our pets, what about the animals that we exterminate, exploit, and eat?
If animals start talking to us in our own language, do we have an obligation to listen?
‘What’s this in my paw?’ How button-based communication works
People have always wanted to talk to animals — or really, with them. “If you look at the archetypal superpowers, one of them is talking to animals. . . . It’s like one of these deep urges,” says Leo Trottier, cofounder of FluentPet, the company that makes Parker’s sound board.
Communicating with animals has been a preoccupation for some scientists for decades, but the results have been mixed. Koko, the gorilla who used sign language to communicate with her handler, seemed to be able to express grief, love, novel ideas, and complex emotional and intellectual reasoning. But skeptics questioned how much of Koko’s ability was reliant on her trainer’s interpretation of what Koko “probably meant” by her combinations of signs and willingness to overlook seemingly random words (Koko evidently liked the word “nipple” a lot). Her trainer’s seeming reluctance to share data did little to mitigate that criticism.
A similar burden of proof rests on the sound boards.
Trottier, who has a background in cognitive science, began making the boards after seeing pet owners on message forums trying to cobble together DIY boards from Velcro and plywood that quickly fell apart. Many of those people had been inspired by speech therapist Christina Hunger’s work using similar buttons with her dog, Stella. Hunger began teaching Stella to “talk” in 2018 after noticing that her dog’s cognitive capabilities seemed similar to a preverbal child’s; she started documenting Stella’s experiments with the buttons on social media soon after.
“All these communities kind of cropped up, and they were all having to improvise their hardware,” says Trottier. FluentPet worked with users to design the system of buttons with interlocking hexagonal tiles of different colors. The starter kit comes with six buttons and ideogram stickers depicting basic ideas, such as water, food, and car, to help both the animals and humans differentiate the buttons.
One of FluentPet’s early intentions was to help foster a community of users who could share best practices and help one another develop training programs. The company’s other objective was to collect and share data, with permission from the human users. Some of the users have consented to having cameras filming their animals using the buttons. FluentPet is now collecting data from thousands of button-using animals.
The animals don’t get a treat for using the buttons (except when the button says “treat”). Rather, the pets learn to use the buttons through modeling: The owner presses the button to demonstrate what it does and means — say, pressing the “outside” button before going outside — and encourages the animal to use it. If the animal does, the “reward” is the successful communication itself, the subsequent action demonstrating that the meaning is unlocked.
Pet owners who use the buttons report a closer bond with their companion animals and less problematic behavior; they also say that the buttons offer pets a way to have more agency in their lives, even if it’s as basic as a choice between going for a walk in the park or through the town. What the buttons really offer is an opportunity for richer, more nuanced two-way communication than what dogs can initiate by simply pawing at the door.
New words arise as needed and are reinforced through use. For example, you might notice that your dog has a specific favorite toy and add a “ducky” button. Even abstract concepts such as time can fit into a pet’s world: When the dog asks for a walk, the owner taps “later” and then, sometime later, takes the dog on a walk “now.” Pain is another big idea that can be buttonized. In one example famous in the community of people with talking animals, a sheepadoodle called Bunny is seen pressing “stranger,” “ouch,” and “paw.” The buttons are far enough away from one another that the action appears intentional; when Bunny then shows her paw to her owner, there’s a prickly foxtail grass seed stuck between her pads, which could be the “stranger.”
What the research says about pets and communication
It’s easy to see how a dog or cat, even an industrious guinea pig or rabbit, would be able to use a small constellation of buttons that correspond to what we assume their needs to be — food, water, play, attention, pain relief. We already know that many animals are capable of remembering and distinguishing among a large number of words and concepts. One study from 2021 found that on average dogs responded to 89 distinct words, roughly the same number as an 18-month-old child. So the question isn’t whether many of these animals are capable of cognitive thought; the question is how much.
Much of the skepticism is aimed at the abstract and novel ideas some of these animals seem to be expressing, pointing to needs beyond the basic. When Bunny uses the word “dream,” does she mean sleeping, the thing that happens when she sleeps, or something else completely? What does “love you” mean to a cat? Are combinations like “beach,” “food,” and “play” really a request to go on a seaside picnic or just the enjoyment of pressing those buttons? The interpretations are heavily dependent on the owner’s prior experience and shared meaning with the animal. Without that connection, the words may lack sense, but critics rightly point out that interpretation can easily become projection.
Parsing out what is conditioning (animals learning to repeat behaviors that have desired results), what is wishful thinking, and what is actually communication and creativity will take a lot of data — data that has previously been limited by stifling lab conditions and small sample sizes.
Federico Rossano, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, is the lead researcher on a project that examines data gleaned from FluentPet. (FluentPet does not fund his research.) While it is far too early to draw any real conclusions about the data, Rossano says it’s clear that many of the thousands of animals that use the buttons are doing so with intention — pressing them systematically in appropriate circumstances to elicit a specific response from the owner, not just accidentally tapping one or mashing whatever button they happen to hit. (Truthfully, watching videos of animals pressing buttons and then looking expectantly at a human is fairly convincing evidence that whatever the sounds mean to that animal, the behavior is intentional.) These combinations tend to be basic ones, such as “want” plus “food,” “outside,” or “water,” but, says Rossano, “that’s not particularly amazing.”
What is interesting, he says, are the “few dozens” of pets, that are progressing beyond simple words and basic combinations. Some animals, Parker and Bunny included, are pushing buttons in unique combinations, giving the impression of using these building blocks to construct new expressions and demonstrating curiosity about the world. “We do not have enough evidence to say that this is legit sentences,” Rossano says. “What we can say, though, is that those multi-combinations are not random, and that we have evidence for that. It’s not random.”
Exactly what that is demonstrating about animal cognition is an open question, but Rossano suspects that it’s more than just the animal responding to conditioning. “This animal has capacity to learn and has cognitive abilities that are significantly more nuanced and complex than you think,” he says. “I want people to appreciate that when you are looking at your dog, the dog has a mind behind it. And that complexity of the mind is what we’re trying to understand.”
Fish have friends, too
A growing body of evidence underscores that this complexity and the potential for linguistic development isn’t just in dogs or primates, or any of the creatures we think of as nearest to us or that we like the most. Recent studies have demonstrated that, for example, parrots — highly social birds that outperform 6- and 7-year-old children on some puzzle tasks — can use Zoom to call each other to “chat,” and those that do are less lonely. Bees will self-medicate with nicotine when they’re sick, and some studies show that they exhibit play behavior, can decide to endure discomfort if there’s a sufficient reward forthcoming, and even display optimism. Wild pigeons are able to recognize and remember individual human faces and will change their behavior in response to those faces. Fish have friends and individual personalities and experience positive emotions. Zebra finches dream.
Complex cognitive behaviors aren’t even solely the province of creatures with brains: Recent research has demonstrated that the tiny box jellyfish can learn by association, despite not possessing a central nervous system. Reams of evidence suggest that plants communicate with one another as well as with other species, such as insects; are capable of remembering and of recognizing their own kin; can make decisions; can count; and can even make intentional and social movements — all behaviors that we would describe as cognition if they occurred in animal populations.
Knowing that we humans aren’t as special as we’d like to think, that many more of the beings with which we share this planet are capable of complex thought and profound emotion, should change our behavior toward them. “I hope the richer the inner lives of animals appear to us — and science is unveiling that for us — the better we’ll treat them. For an ethicist, it’s really obvious that it changes our ethical responsibilities,” says Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist and author of the forthcoming “Who’s a Good Dog? And How to Be a Better Human.” “But I’m not sure that it necessarily cashes out that way for people as a whole.”
It might not even cash out that way for pet owners, people who arguably have a closer relationship with animals and a vested interest in their well-being. Being a pet owner requires swallowing some degree of cognitive dissonance. We need to assume that the lives of the animals we bring into our homes are fulfilling and that by including them as part of our households, we are discharging our moral obligations to them. Many of us also insist that we know what our pets want and need. But though we love them and repeatedly insist in survey after survey that they are members of our families, of all our “family members,” our pets have the least agency. We dictate when and how much and what they eat, where and when they defecate. We take their sex organs so that they cannot reproduce. Depending on the kind of animal and its circumstances, we may confine it to a small space — a cage, an aquarium, an apartment. And we don’t provide them medical care as often as we should — less than half of the cat owners surveyed in 2016 had taken their pet in for preventive care. If we want to leave them alone for days, we can; if we want to make them wear people clothes, we can; if we want to pet them without their consent, we can; if we want to get rid of them, we can.
The suggestion that the person-pet relationship is unbalanced or problematic — or, indeed, that there is something inconsistent about treating some animals as family and others as dinner, even as the members of both categories exhibit similar cognitive and emotional behaviors — really upsets people. Believe me, I know: My most controversial article to date was a 2017 piece for The Guardian exploring whether it was ethical to own pets. (Full disclosure: I have a cat.) More than 3,000 comments and many personal emails said I was a terrible person for even asking the question because as they saw it, of course it’s right to own pets. Talking animals play well on social media but also invite tremendous skepticism when it appears that animals might have more to say than “feed me,” “water me,” “pet me.”
Maybe the truth is that we don’t want to know what our pets are thinking. We might not like it.
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is a writer in London who contributes frequently to Ideas. She is coauthor of “Ouch! Why Pain Hurts and Why It Doesn’t Have To.”