Skepticism

Are Dogs and Cats on TikTok Really “Talking” with Buttons?

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If you’ve been on TikTok or Instagram any time in the past two years, you’ve probably seen footage of a pet dog or cat “speaking” with their human. The most famous of these is a dog named “Bunny,” a young poodle mix who hits buttons that correspond to words like “walk” or “outside” in order to communicate her deepest desires.

Bunny kicked off a hot new trend for bored, quarantined pet owners around the world, who stocked up on big red buttons and got to work launching their dog or cat to influencer fame. I assumed this trend would die down once we had COVID vaccines and people could go outside again and interact with other people. This assumption was a bad one on a number of levels, and now I can hardly go a day online without seeing another “genius” pet hitting my social media feed.

I’ll be honest, I woke up a little cranky, saw one such video, and fired off a mean Tweet about it: “I’ve held this in for too long. I gotta say it. Unless your pet is an African grey or a human toddler in an elephant costume, it can’t talk. There, I said it. Never Hans is pushing buttons until you make the happy sound and get him a treat. Don’t @ me.”

Instead of toddler I had first written “western lowland gorilla” but deleted it because I honestly just was not in the mood to get into a fight about animal communication and Koko the gorilla. It took approximately 30 seconds for that fight to happen in my replies anyway.

And honestly, I get why. It’s because it IS, in fact, a really interesting fight to have, for several reasons:

  1. It’s not about a deadly pandemic or global warming. The future of the human race does not depend upon the outcome
  2. There are valid points on all sides of the debate
  3. Non-human animals are cool

So after thinking about it a bit more I decided “fuck it, let’s make a video about it.”

A few replies I got illustrate the most common misconceptions about the debate over whether or not certain animals can communicate with humans. For instance, one person pointed out that many birds, not just African greys, can talk. But talking isn’t communication. Possessing the physical attributes that allow an animal (human or otherwise) to form words we can understand doesn’t mean they understand the meaning behind those words.

Another reply stated that “We know from experiments that dogs can have a vocabulary of about 165 words..Why is it so hard to imagine that a dog can put together noun + verb?”

But even understanding that certain words “mean” certain things, like “walk” means we put on a leash and go outside, in no way suggests it’s an easy leap to the next step of forming sentences. And I’m not just talking about noun + verb. My dog is a straight up dumb dumb, and he “understands” certain noun and verb combos when I say them, like “Indy walk?” or “Get bone” or “come here.” It would be interesting if Indy didn’t just understand when I say those things but that he could put those together himself using buttons, but when we talk about “communication” we’re talking about something even more interesting than that: we’re talking about an animal who so truly understands what we’re saying that they can create novel combinations of words they haven’t necessarily learned before.

An “Insider” article on Bunny gives a very good example as an opening:

The black-and-white dog then pressed a button, which immediately sounded the word “mad.” “Why mad?” asked Alexis Devine — Bunny’s 40-year-old owner. The dog then moved to press the ‘ouch’ button. Devine, skeptically, proceeded to ask: “Where is your ouch?” 

After a few moments of hesitation, Bunny walked over to a new button. “Stranger,” it chimed. Soon after that, she sounded the ‘paw’ button.

Devine pieced together this information – mad, ouch, stranger, paw. She decided to investigate further.

She called over her pet and began to examine Bunny’s foot. To her amazement, lodged in between Bunny’s toes was a foxtail – an invasive cluster of grass that can penetrate the skin of dogs and occasionally requires surgery.

“When Bunny told me ‘stranger, paw,’ I knew that there was a foreign object there. I was able to look and remove it before it required medical attention,” Devine told Insider.

It’s rather easy to imagine a dog that understands the word “paw” refers to each of its four little footsies, so if there’s pain in a foot and it would like its human to investigate, hitting the button for “paw” makes sense. It’s a 1-to1 comparison. It’s the rest of it that has me hitting the buttons “red” and “flag.”

“Ouch” would be the next step up in terms of complicated communication. How did Bunny learn what “ouch” means?

This, too, IS in the realm of possibility. When Indy was a puppy, I taught him how to play nicely by communicating with him the way other puppies teach each other to play nicely. All puppies like to wrestle and bite, but when one puppy yelps in pain the other puppy will stop and pull back, learning that they had gone too far. So when Indy and I wrestled, if he nipped too hard I would literally give a high pitched yelp, regardless of whether it actually hurt or not. Indy understood: YEEP means “that hurt please stop.” These days when we play I can stick my entire hand in his mouth with no fear of him pressing down in the slightest. He understands.

Had I yelled a high-pitch “ouch” instead he probably would have understood that just as well as “YEEP.” But if I gave him a button to push with that sound, or even with “YEEP,” would he associate it with pain? Or would he associate it with “you’re playing too hard” or simply “stop”?

See how complicated it can get when we’re talking about how we understand a simple thing like “YEEP”?

But okay, let’s accept that he DOES associate “ouch” with “pain.” Great. “Paw.” “Pain.” I would buy it.

But then we get to “stranger,” and it is here, my dear friends, that I have to admit I’m not just skeptical, I’m actively denying that the dog purposely chose “stranger” to refer to a foxtail in his paw. I’m not saying Devine is lying, but I am saying she is fooling herself. She has fallen victim to Clever Hans.

You probably learned about this in high school psychology so I’ll be brief: Clever Hans was a horse whose owner said could do simply math. The owner wrote “2+2” on a chalk board and Hans tapped his hoof four times. The horse was NOT doing math, though he was very clever: he was simply reading cues from his owner, and tapping his foot until the owner was clearly satisfied. The owner wasn’t pulling a scam – he was fooled, too, and his cues were completely involuntary. It’s an important lesson for critical thinkers: we will see what we want to see. We will fool ourselves time and time again, which is why we have the scientific method to help us out.

For Bunny the dog to first learn the word “stranger” is one feat – I imagine it could be done by having new unknown-to-Bunny people show up, saying “stranger,” and giving a treat. Then have people show up who are known to Bunny, say “friend,” and treat. Repeat ad infinitum. I’m just guessing here, by the way – I’ve scoured the internet and cannot find anywhere that Devine explains how she taught her dog the individual words. The only thing I can find is that the “stranger” button was “new” at the time of the anecdote.

But sure, the dog might know “stranger.” But it is absolutely next level cognition for a dog to think, “Hmm, ‘stranger’ means ‘person I have met for the first time.’ That could also mean ‘unwelcome human in my home.’ That is a metaphor for ‘unwelcome thorn in my paw.’”

I’m sorry, but no. Nope! In researching this video I’ve read dozens of articles about Bunny, and many of them mention this anecdote, and not a single one had the guts to call this out as absolute bullshit. Not even the New York Times, which was written 5 months after the Insider article where I first saw the “stranger paw” anecdote. Interesting thing to note: In December of 2020, Insider reported that after the buttons were pushed, Devine “called over her pet and began to examine Bunny’s foot.” But by May of 2021, the New York Times was reporting that immediately after pressing the buttons, Bunny “stretched her arm out toward her owner.” The story gets more amazing by the day!

I don’t think Devine is purposely lying, but I do think she has attributed a magical purpose to something that happened coincidentally, and the more time that passes, the more amazing the “communication” becomes. But if it’s true that Bunny the poodle mix took the word “stranger” and understood it so well that she could repurpose it to refer to an unwelcome thorn in her paw, she has done something that literally no other animal on the planet can do besides humans.

As I hinted above, some researchers believe that Koko, the western lowland gorilla, MAY have been able to do this with sign language, and some believe that Alex, the African grey parrot, MAY have been able to do this with his voice, but many, many other scientists are extremely skeptical that we have enough evidence that that’s what was really going on, as opposed to trainers simply interpreting random words and gestures as being deeper than they were. Alex, by the way, once looked into a mirror and asked his trainer “what color?” which is how he learned the color “grey.” To date, that is the one and only example scientists have of any non-human animal EVER asking a question. Ever. Any question at all. Koko the gorilla, and every other non-human primate that has been taught sign language, has never, ever asked a single question.

And yet, a Salon headline proudly announces, “Bunny, the dog that can “talk,” starts asking existential questions” because Devine says she once looked in a mirror and asked “who’s this?” And later, she posted a video of Bunny hitting the buttons “Dog what dog is.” 

No! I’m sorry. No. I get it, it’s such a wonderful thing to imagine that our beloved pets have rich internal lives that they can express if we give them the right tools. I DO often think that humans in general and sometimes scientists in particular are too quick to dismiss certain animals as unintelligent because they don’t think and behave the way that a human does. I mean, Clever Hans couldn’t do basic arithmetic but he truly WAS clever! He had an ability to understand his beloved owner so well that it was almost like he could read his mind. And some researcher ARE trying to study Bunny and other animals in a critical way to see just how much they really can communicate with buttons.

But this actually gets to the heart of why I’m annoyed with all the completely naive, credulous reporting about Bunny and other animals. Humans have decided that the way to understand these animals is to make them use the language that comes naturally to US, and that is the standard by which we judge their intelligence. And honestly, that’s stupid.

I grew up always having a cat. Sometimes two. I’ve spent a lifetime watching them and interacting with them and, in a way, understanding them. As a child I had a cat, Katie, who was widely considered by others to be a complete asshole. She would let you pet her for awhile but then seemingly randomly attack your hand. But I always knew when she had had enough pets. I would feel her start to stiffen, become less relaxed, give me a “look,” flick an ear, flutter a whisker. She also had a very specific meow she would use in the middle of the night when she would bring a dead mouse or bird to me, placing it under my bedroom window and making that very specific sound until I woke up, told her thank you, and went back to sleep as she leapt into the night. (Keep your cats inside, folks, they kill a lot of stuff.)

As an adult, I loved that my snuggly cat Fry clearly had learned the name of his favorite toy mouse (Yarnold) and would come running when I just said the mouse’s name, but I was more fascinated by the fact that Fry would tell me he loved me by very slowly blinking his eyes. And then I would tell him I loved him by doing the same, and we would go back and forth like that. Or how sometimes I would hear Fry in another room, softly chirping to Yarnold as he hugged and licked him.

When I got my first dog, Indy, I realized I had to learn a new language. We didn’t understand each other, and it wasn’t enough for me to force him to learn English. I had to learn dog. In the five years since, I’ve learned that a sneeze in the middle of wrestling means “I’m just playing!” A bow means “Can we play?” Different postures and facial expressions mean he’s content, or on alert, or listening intently to try to understand what I’m saying to him in my stupid language.

Dogs are particularly interesting in this respect because unlike cats, they evolved along with us humans, and we shaped that evolution. So, unlike his wolf cousins, Indy has more communication options, like the ability to raise an eyebrow, usually to show he wants something because it makes him look extremely cute. Research suggests that dogs almost exclusively manipulate their facial expression only when humans are looking at them in an active attempt to communicate. 

In other words, dogs have already learned to communicate with us in complex ways that many people don’t even realize.

In fact, dogs went to all this trouble to evolve quite complicated ways to EXCLUSIVELY communicate with humans, and what did we do? We bred them until their faces were so squished flat they’re physically unable to communicate with their snouts. We bred them until their tails were too tiny to communicate, or we just straight cut them off. We bred them until their ears couldn’t move properly (or we just pinned them so they stuck straight up). And after we removed these methods of clear communication, we gave them Staples buttons to press that say “existential angst” and get excited when they hit it.

On the one hand, I want more people to get curious about the inner lives of animals. And not just common pets, but animals like cows and pigs and cephalopods, with the latter two being so ridiculously intelligent that they positively dwarf dogs. Hell, there’s a good chance the intelligence of cephalopods dwarfs humans. If more people took that kind of interest, the world would probably be a better place, not least of all because more people would eat less meat.

But at the same time, it helps to think critically about how our own very human perspectives may bias our study of non-human intelligence and communication. If we found an alien life form that wasn’t based on carbon, we wouldn’t judge it to be lesser than us, or try to force it to use carbon. We would deal with it on its own level. We should do the same with nonhumans who don’t necessarily think the same way we do. 

ALL animals communicate in some way, within their own species and occasionally between species. Instead of expecting all of them to learn our own language, it’s worth remembering that communication goes both ways, and if we are truly the more “intelligent” of the two of us in the conversation then it behooves us to think critically to make sure we truly understand what each of us is saying.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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One Comment

  1. I didn’t know that Koko’s communication was controversial. I have some internal bias that makes me chafe at your assertions about the inability of animals to process language, but I’m much closer to your position than “Bunny has existential angst”. It’s reasonable to me that hitting a particular button instead of doing a dog bow or sneeze. And I really appreciate the distinction you draw between language and the inner life they seem to have. And your pets are adorable. I loved your stories.

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