National Pet Month: Can Dogs Communicate with Humans?

I thought I'd celebrate National Pet Month this month by considering whether dogs can really communicate like Bunny and Stella.

I do think some dogs are smarter than others.  For instance, I now have a dog that is capable of rolling over (a feat I was unable to replicate in any other dog I owned,) peeing on command, and following unspoken hand signals.

I have noticed that my dog is also able to follow commands after being given an instruction only once.  For instance, when being scolded for chewing up a child's stuffed toy, the dog never touched stuffed toys again.  My pet was also reprimanded for eating snacks that had been left on the floor.  The dog has never touched human food that is lying on the floor since!

Other animals have been noted for their communication skills, like Koko the Gorilla.

Koko the Gorilla Communicated in Sign Language

In an article called "Can Koko the Gorilla really talk?" in EBSCO's Academic Search Complete, Dr. Penny Patterson claims that Koko the Gorilla was able to sign 1,000 words.

Skeptics like linguist Thomas Sebeok believed that Koko was reading cues in Dr. Patterson's face.  Sebeok believed that when Koko made mistakes, which Dr. Patterson attributed to being "ornery," Koko was showing her incomprehension.

Dr. Patterson claims in the article that:

"she uses double-blind tests, has published scientific papers, and insists that a sign is not logged as "learned" until Koko uses it appropriately 15 days out of a month. She has invited skeptics like Sebeok to visit the foundation, but has always been turned down or ignored."

If Koko did comprehend 1,000 words, she would have had the vocabulary of a three year old child.

Are there dogs that are capable of communicating like Koko?

Stella and Bunny Communicate with Buttons

Social media sensations Stella and Bunny have gone viral because of their ability to communicate, using buttons (Augmentative and Alternative Communication or AAC devices) on the floor.

According to a Washington Post, "Can these dogs really talk, or are they just pushing our buttons?," author Maura Judkis follows dog owner Rachel and her dog Lucy, who are learning how to use the AAC devices.

Both Christina Hunger and her dog Stella and Alexis Devine and her dog Bunny use AAC devices to communicate with their dogs.  Using paw pressing buttons, which each represent a word, in tandem, dogs can seemingly form phrases to communicate with their owners.

To validate the button communication, two cognitive scientists, Federico Rossano and Leo Trottier (who co-founded FluentPet) are collaborating to study whether dogs can communicate with humans.

They are trying to prove that the dogs are not just reading micro-expressions in their humans' faces, like Clever Hans the horse, in the early 20th Century.

Once the study is complete, dog owners hope to prove that their dogs can communicate, and that it is not just a projection of a dog's love.

Full Circle to my Pet

Like most dog owners, I hope the FluentPet study proves that dogs are smarter than the average pet.

My belief was slightly shattered recently, when I tried to train my dog to use the potty in the house.  Buying dog litter and a litter container, I attempted to teach my dog how to use the litter instead of the grass outdoors.

Much to my surprise, the dog did not seem to understand what I wanted after a day of trying!

I know my dog is very smart, though, so I will keep trying.  But my belief in the dog-human communication link has been deflated somewhat!

If you have any questions, please leave a comment below!

Books About Dog Training

How Stella Learned How to Talk, book cover
ASPCA Complete Dog Training Manual, book cover
Practical Illustrated Guide to Dog Training, book cover
Teach Yourself Visually Dog Training, book cover
The Art of Training Your Dog, book cover