Have you ever caught your dog barking and wondered what they could possibly be saying? Or maybe you’ve caught yourself rambling about the latest gossip with your cat and wonder what they would say in return. A good pet owner can always read their dog’s body language, but a few verbal words would always help.
While it’s true talking animals are still in the realm of fantasy, there’s a new trend on Instagram and TikTok that has the pet community buzzing. You’ve probably seen it: a dog or cat presses a button, which “speaks” simple nouns or verbs like “food” and “outside.” Using these talking buttons, dogs and cats can tell their owners what they’re thinking.
But, does it actually work?
Origins of #Hunger4Words
According to the trend’s founder: yes.
The trend began with Christina Hunger and her dog, Stella. According to Hunger’s website, the idea for the button system came to her when she noticed that Stella demonstrated many of the same pre-linguistic communication skills as toddlers do right before they start talking. The button system itself resembles an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device that’s commonly used in speech therapy.
To date, Stella knows over 45 words and can even string about five words together to create simple phrases, like “Stella-want-outside.”
From Stella and Hunger (@hunger4words), many more accounts have sprung up, replicating the practice for themselves. The most famous one is Bunny the sheepadoodle (@whataboutbunny) and Steve the cat (@thedailysteveb). You can watch a few of their videos below:
Is It Really Talking?
Admittedly, this sounds like a great deal. If you don’t have a pet door, your dog and cat could just tell you when they want to go outside without barking and disturbing the neighbors. But is it really talking?
A lot of skeptics say no. Pets like Stella and Steve could have learned what each of the buttons mean through operant conditioning, much the same way they associate the snapping of fingers with the command to sit. Plus, those short phrases of words could be confirmation bias. As owners, we want to see our pets communicate with us. Their button pushing could just be nonsense.
We’re not saying that dogs and cats cannot comprehend what we’re saying. Studies have shown that our pets know how we’re feeling and when we are showering them with love. However, scientists are still split on whether they can understand specifically what we’re saying to them.
Should I Teach My Pet to “Talk”
Even if your pets are not truly talking, this button experiment can be a fun way to add enrichment to your pet’s life. And as we know, more enrichment means happier pets.
Plus, even if they’re only using the buttons because they’ve been trained to, it still means that there is better communication between you and them. Think about it– a button system would mean that you would not have to guess why your dog is barking or why your cat is meowing.
However, we believe that once you commit to the button system, it would be best for you and your pet if you stick to it. Training your pet can be hard, but once they learn a skill, it’s unlikely they will ever unlearn it. If you take away your pet’s ability to tell you when they want outside or when they want to be fed, you might see significant changes in their behavior.
With all that in mind, you can decide for yourself if you want your pet to talk. For me, the videos are fun to watch, but for right now, I’m content with the special bond I already have with my dog. Maybe one day he’ll tell me himself why he likes to chew up my slippers.