Trained Tricks or Real Talk?

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An interesting story is making the rounds on the internet this week. A San Diego speech pathologist claims she has taught her dog, Stella, to communicate using a sound board. The gist of it is that the board has eighteen different buttons which play different words based on what Stella wants or how she feels. Christina Hunger says that so far, Stella has learned nearly thirty words and can use as many as five of them together to convey her meaning.

I am the first to say that the field of dog cognition and animal sentience has shown us some amazing things in recent years, but does this add up to real communication or is it no different from any other tricks a smart dog can learn?

One example I want to look at is the “OUTSIDE” button. Hunger taught the 18-month-old Catahoula/Heeler mix to press a button that would then play the recorded word “outside” when the dog wanted out. At first glance this seems pretty impressive, but I ask, does the dog know what the word means? Does she have any grasp of outside as a concept or is this just a different way to teach dogs to paw at a string of bells when they want to go out? I know what you’re going to say, “But she can use several together to convey an extended thought, such as Stella wants to go outside with Christina to play ball.” Right. My dog conveys this same message by bringing me his ball, dropping it in my lap, and walking to the back door. He has learned through repetition and reward of this behavior, that when he does it I will grab the ball, go outside and throw it for him. I suggest that Stella has learned (not unimpressively) that through performing a behavior or set of behaviors, she will get what she wants, be it going outside, water, a treat, or bellyrubs. 

Any decent trainer could train a smart dog to do similar behaviors using words, tones, or flashing lights if that was what you wanted to use. I would believe those things mean little to the dog on their own, but the reward makes doing those things worthwhile. 

I absolutely believe that dogs, and many, many other animals have very active mental lives. I just don’t think this particular situation proves it. If anything it shows that they are highly adaptable and this owner, knowingly or not, is a pretty good trainer.

How about you? Check out these videos and let me know what you think.

Until next time, you don’t have to teach your pooch to speak with buttons, but get out there and do something with your dog!

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