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Dogs and cats learning to 'talk' through innovative soundboard

Posted at 9:29 AM, Sep 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-03 23:24:43-04

Have you ever wanted to know exactly what your dog is thinking? Pet owners around the country are starting to get the answers, with help from a device teaching animals how to talk.

"I really wanted a smart dog because I was pretty invested in the training process," said Alexis Devine, from Tacoma, Washington.

Devine knew early on she wanted to test the boundaries of communication with her Sheepadoodle, Bunny.

She was inspired by speech pathologist Christina Hunger, who went viral for teaching her dog how to talk with an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system. These devices are typically used in speech therapy to help non-verbal people to communicate.

"I thought when we get our puppy, I have to try this out, and I bought the buttons long before we got Bunny," said Devine.

Devine started small, purchasing a few sound buttons from Amazon. "Outside" was Bunny's first word. Devine pressed it every time they left the house, and soon enough, Bunny was pushing it on her own to go outside.

"She uses 'park' and 'beach' constantly, 'outside' quite a bit. She uses 'walk' a lot, 'ball', 'tug', and 'hippo' are really popular. 'Love you, mom,' are really popular," Devine said.

Now, with over 40 buttons, Bunny is starting to form sentences.

"One of her longest sentences to date was, 'Home. Concerned. Soon poop, yes,' which felt very much like a toddler," Devine explained. "Like, 'I have to poop right now. We're in the house. I don't want to be.'"

In addition to narrating what's happening around her, Bunny communicates what she wants and how she feels.

"A couple of days ago she pressed 'help' and then 'ouch' and put her left front paw on my hand, and I started looking between her paws and found a foxtail," Devine recalled.

An invasive grass, foxtails are razor-sharp and can burrow into a dog's paw, causing infection.

"Who knows what's actually going on here, but I think if it's possible for our animals to tell us when and where they are in pain. It could revolutionize veterinary science," said Devine.

Devine is now beta testing the FluentPet soundboard, a hexagonal tile grid created specifically for animals. The company combined ideas from speech-language pathology and cognitive science to develop intuitive arrangements designed to help owners and pets remember word locations.

Everything Bunny says is recorded on video and sent to researchers studying how dogs understand words. The company is working with the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, which studies the cognitive behavior and abilities of children, adults, and a variety of non-human animals.

"Does it matter if they start as a puppy or if they start later in life? Does it matter what breed they are? Does it matter what gender they are?" wondered Devine.

They'll also be looking at processing time. Devine says their small group of beta testers is learning responses can take anywhere from 10 to 40 seconds.

Bunny is now talking to people around the world.

On TikTok, @what_about_bunny has amassed over 3 million followers and nearly 300,000 on Instagram.

Thousands have ordered sound buttons through Amazon or FluentPet to teach their dogs, and cats, how to talk.

One talkative feline, @billispeaks, is capturing the hearts of thousands on social media. She's often spotted pressing her favorite word, "mad."

"I think what I would like the takeaway for everyone to be is--not 'Oh my god, our dogs can talk' but 'Oh my god, our dogs have been saying these things all along and we haven't been listening,'" said Devine.

Devine says she remains skeptical. While Bunny's words make sense some days, they don't on others. She hopes they'll learn more as new dogs are studied.

"It's too early, but I'm really excited to see what comes out of it," she said.

Either way, she says it's been an incredible tool to bond with Bunny.

For those unsure where to start, FluentPet created a community-built guide with tips and tricks, do's and don'ts, and how-tos for modeling the most common first concepts.