If you have a pet, you’ve probably wished at some point that it could talk to you. Too bad that’s impossible … or is it? Alexis Devine would tell you that her dog can — in a way.
Devine, an artist in Tacoma, has had Bunny, a female Sheepadoodle, for a year. And in that time, Devine says she’s introduced Bunny to more than 50 words by teaching her to press buttons that play words out loud.
For instance, as seen in videos Devine has posted on social media, if Bunny wants to go to the park, she’ll press a button that says “park.” Or, if she wants to play, she’ll hit the button for “play.” Those posts on Instagram and TikTok have become wildly popular, with the duo amassing over 300,000 followers on Instagram and 3.4 million followers on TikTok.
Devine was inspired after finding, on Instagram, Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist who teaches her dog, Stella, how to communicate with buttons.
“My goal before I got her was that I wanted to have the most connected, engaged relationship possible and just see what the possibilities are,” Devine said. “I feel like there’s so much potential in animal relationships and I really wanted to make the most of it.”
Devine uses puzzle-piece-like boards called HexTiles to hold the buttons in place. The HexTiles are made by FluentPet, which is owned by CleverPet, a company founded by cognitive scientist Leo Trottier. Trottier said those who test the HexTile prototype, like Devine, don’t get paid to use them, but they do get money when they refer customers with a link.
The buttons are organized using the Fitzgerald Key, a system developed by Edith Fitzgerald, a teacher who thought it would be easier for deaf children to learn sentence structure if words were grouped in sentence parts such as people, actions, places and things. The buttons are used as a tool for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), a practice that speech-language pathologists use with nonverbal people to communicate.
While Devine was open to trying the buttons, they were never something she forced on Bunny. She said they were on the back burner while she was teaching Bunny basic obedience as a puppy.
“If it works, it works — cool, and if it doesn’t, you know, whatever, fun experiment,” Devine said of her approach to the buttons.
Despite this, Bunny ended up being interested in the buttons and took to them quickly, Devine said, adding that Bunny will initiate conversations throughout the day.
“If she’s eager and if she’s over at the buttons and looking at me and making eye contact, I’ll go over there and we’ll dialogue a little bit and I’ll ask her questions,” she said. “But we don’t do big, long, directed half-hour-long training sessions or anything like that with the buttons.”
So how does Bunny learn to use the buttons? Devine said a lot of it is from repetition. Normally when Devine adds words, she’s already using the word in conversation with Bunny. The hope, she said, is that Bunny has already built an association with that word. Then, to help her learn the button’s position on the tiles, Devine will repeat the word and reinforce the behavior after Bunny presses a button. For example, their first button said “outside.” They put it by the door, and every time they would go outside, Devine would press the button, then say the word “outside,” and let Bunny out.
“It’s basically just hundreds of tiny reinforcements over time with each button and then each combination of buttons,” she said.
Going by Devine’s videos, Bunny can also make sentences — well, her version of sentences. Devine said Bunny learns where the buttons are located through muscle memory and through the sound of the button, kind of like how a pianist can play a song without looking at the keys. So, for example, if she wants to play tug, she’ll hit the buttons for “play,” “tug” and “now.”
If you’re skeptical as to whether or not Bunny actually knows what she’s saying, rather than randomly pressing buttons, Devine is with you. She said she has moments of skepticism all the time.
“It seems to me, for her to have a full comprehension of all this it would, should, take years,” she said.
However, Devine said it sometimes really seems like Bunny has a clear understanding of what her owner is saying. For example, during the interview, as Devine was talking about her skepticism, Bunny pressed the buttons for the words “cat,” “friend” and “outside” because she saw a cat outside, Devine said. But other times, it seems more random — and Devine thinks it’s important to remain skeptical.
“It’s very, very up and down for me,” she said. “I’ve always sort of considered myself a hopeful skeptic. I think it’s going to take a lot more time and a lot more research to know exactly what’s going on and how much comprehension actually exists.”
Devine is part of a research study looking at sound-button-based language learning, sponsored by CleverPet, at the University of California, San Diego. The program is led by Trottier and Federico Rossano, director of the university’s comparative cognition lab. Trottier said they are trying to determine the depth of language use and understanding, primarily by dogs.
All the evidence that the test group has collected at this point is anecdotal, Devine said.
“There’s no concrete evidence, either way,” she said. “I think it’s important to sort of be on the fence about it and not try to make wild claims in either direction, but the journey is super, super fascinating.”
While Devine and Bunny have fun with the buttons, Devine said they communicate great without them and that they do all of the normal things dogs and humans do together.
“I don’t want to take away any of her dog-ness,” Devine said. “The buttons are super interesting and they may give us more in-depth insight into what’s going on inside of a dog’s mind, but she already has all the tools she needs to communicate.”