“What Lucy want?”

Rachel Stephens poses this question to her 3-month-old black standard poodle each time the dog stands before a panel of buttons, each one recorded to play a word that might contain the answer. Is it “play,” maybe with her squeaky pig toy? Or maybe “outside,” on her owner’s lawn in Rydal, Ga.? Or “water?” or “yummies?”

Except there isn’t a button for the thing Lucy desperately wants, which is to chew on Stephens’s shoelaces.

“No, no, no,” Stephens says. “All done shoelaces.” She reaches over to the board and hits a button, which chimes out: “All done.”

(Rachel Stephens)

Stephens had seen the videos of Stella and Bunny, social media-famous dogs whose owners had taught them to “talk” by pressing buttons recorded with words such as “outside” and “love you.” Those were things she wanted her dog to be able to tell her, too. So when Lucy arrived in May, several buttons were already waiting for her.

Each time Lucy did any activity correlated with a button, such as whining to go outside, Stephens would press it to model the behavior for her. But Lucy wasn’t interested. So Stephens logged on to a forum for dog owners nationwide who are teaching their dogs how to speak with the buttons — called augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, in the speech therapy field — and who were, like Stephens, participating in a study of these dogs, called “They Can Talk.” Their recommendation? Give Lucy a button that’s more exciting.

“Her favorite thing in the entire world is a bully stick, and we call that a chewy,” Stephens says. “I gave her a ‘chewy’ button, and immediately — I mean, just as soon as I recorded the button — she walked over and pressed it, and from then, it’s just been an explosion of use, and she started using all the buttons.”

“What Lucy want?” Stephens again calls out to her dog. Lucy approaches the board and stomps on one button three times: “play, play, play.”

A cautionary tale

Throughout human history, storytellers and scientists alike have wondered what it would be like if we could talk to animals, and what animals would say if they could talk back. And some people, both fictional (Dr. Dolittle) and real (Francine Patterson, who taught sign language to Koko the gorilla) have tried to bridge our linguistic gaps. Dogs do have ways to communicate with us, of course — they scratch at the door when they want to go out, they make puppy-dog eyes at us to beg for a bite of whatever we’re eating. But instead of learning their language, humans want them to learn ours.

First came Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist who uses AAC devices in her work, who taught Stella, her Catahoula-blue heeler mix, how to communicate using them. Hunger inspired Alexis Devine to get buttons for Bunny, her sheepadoodle puppy, in 2019.

“I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing,” says Devine, speaking from her home in Tacoma, Wash., while her famous dog snoozed on the couch nearby. She, too, modeled the buttons for Bunny, starting with “outside,” which eventually, suddenly, clicked for the dog. When Bunny pressed it on her own for the first time, “her head flipped up and her ears, like, flew out akimbo. And she just seemed really proud of herself,” Devine says. “At that point I was like, 'Okay, if she can get one button, then she can get all these other buttons.’ ”

She now has 101 words and can string together rudimentary sentences, such as “Bunny come settle,” and “Where Dad bye.”

When Federico Rossano, an assistant professor of cognitive science at the University of California at San Diego who studies dogs and primates, first saw the Bunny and Stella videos, “my reaction was massive skepticism.” There were only two dogs, and their social media clips didn’t always show the context of their behavior with the buttons — what happened before or after. “You just never know really what it means unless you study it from the beginning,” he says.

Soon after, Leo Trottier, another cognitive scientist in San Diego, co-founded FluentPet, a company that makes the buttons so that other dogs can use them, too. (Button sets retail for $30 to $200.) Trottier sought Rossano’s help with a citizen science research project open to the public, soliciting information from thousands of pet owners trying to teach this skill to their dogs (and occasionally, cats). Rossano agreed to collaborate with the company on a broader three-phase study. FluentPet is involved in data collection, but Rossano’s Comparative Cognition Lab will do independent research and publish the results. Rossano said that he and his team are not being paid by FluentPet, and that if the results indicate that merely a few dogs have learned a really cool party trick but not some semblance of language, that would be “perfectly acceptable from a scientific perspective.”

The study’s name, “They Can Talk,” seems to present a foregone conclusion that makes him uncomfortable (Trottier chose it before he agreed to participate, Rossano says).

“If I had to phrase it, it would be ‘Can They Talk?’ ” he says.

Rossano says that if that question is answered in the affirmative, he thinks there could be big implications for human-canine relations.

“It will affect the way people care for them, the way we see them, the way we interact with them, the kind of rights that we give them,” he says.

But if not? Well, he’s all too aware of a cautionary tale from a century ago. In 1904, the world was dazzled by Clever Hans, a horse whose owner, a German math instructor, claimed that he could solve simple arithmetic problems. By tapping his hoofs a certain number of times when presented with multiple choices, the horse could count people in a crowd, read a clock and identify playing cards — even if being questioned by someone other than his owner. The German board of education even set up a commission to study the famous horse.

Several years later, his talents were debunked. It wasn’t that Hans understood language, but rather that he “could read the almost microscopic signals in the face of his master, thus indicating that it had tapped or was about to tap the correct number or letter and would receive a reward,” wrote researchers revisiting the phenomenon in a 2013 paper in the journal Communicative and Integrative Biology. The famous horse met a terrible end, the researchers reported: Drafted into World War I as a military horse, he was “killed in action in 1916 or was consumed by hungry soldiers.”

To control for the “Clever Hans Effect,” as researchers call it, later phases of the research will involve collecting data from continuous monitoring of the button panel and the dog. Devine has five cameras in her home that submit 24/7 footage to Rossano’s team, and as other dogs acquire Bunny’s level of skill, Rossano hopes they will be interested in a similar setup. A third phase will include “direct, controlled tests of learner sound button use” in a lab setting.

“This is really about assessing what happens once you give animals a new set of symbols or signals to communicate with humans,” Rossano says. “We are seeing, already, evidence that once you give Bunny a bunch of buttons, Bunny starts asking things that we don’t expect.” He was surprised to see the dog “inquire” about people or animals that were not present, as well as biological categories, such as whether people and other pets were human or “animal.”

Nevertheless, the study has been met with skepticism from others in the field. Clive Wynne, founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, ascribed the talking dogs’ skills to operant conditioning rather than an understanding of the words they seem to use.

“This is one of the most basic forms of learning in the animal kingdom,” Wynne says. “The dog forms an association between an action and an outcome that it desires.”

Juliane Kaminski, who studies and teaches dog cognition at the University of Portsmouth in England, uses the metaphor of a vending machine. “I know if I press this button, I get a chocolate bar,” she says. “So, in some sense, the dogs may have simply learned if I press this button here, my owner is really happy, or my owner gives me food, or my owner does something that is really positive for me.”

A glimpse into personality

It’s more than that, Victoria Gammino insists. Her dog, Harper, a 1-year-old Barbet, uses the buttons in their home in Stonington, Conn., in ways that make her intentions clear.

“For example, yesterday she hit the play button and then threw her monkey [toy] at me,” Gammino says. Harper also uses them in unusual ways: She is a picky eater, and hits her “food” button when she’s dissatisfied with her dinner. “She will sort of look at the button, look at me, look at the food, and then smack the button again until I give her a different type of food.”

Some dogs take to the buttons immediately. Others are still figuring them out. Suki Lotti has one of each. She is in the initial phases of training Elessar, a goldendoodle, and Pip, a border collie-goldendoodle mix. Elessar gets it. Pip? Well, Pip prefers to do her own thing. Lotti has a “stranger” button for when a person or animal is outside their home in Richmond, and for Elessar, “we’re noticing that it is helping her at least say: ‘Yes, I know what you’re saying. I know these words. We’re on the same page,’ ” Lotti says. “Pip, on the other hand, is just like, ‘Why is this a thing?’ Like, ‘I’m not pushing that.’ ”

Most dogs start out with the basics, but as their vocabulary increases, it’s a glimpse into their personality, their owners say.

Cheryl Moore’s 9-month-old poodle, Journey, started with an “outside” button, and “within a couple of days, he started pressing it and turning and looking at me, and then looking at the door, so I could tell it was a definite, conscious push of the button,” she says.

As he progresses, she hopes to add a few more: “ouch,” if he’s hurt, “water,” “beach” and “hike” (“so he can pick where he wants to go for the day” near their home in Chesapeake, Va.), “brush,” “help,” for when he gets his toys stuck under the couch, and “Love you.”

“Love you” makes most owners’ lists of desired buttons. It’s one of the things we desperately want to hear from our dogs: that they love us as much as we love them. But it’s also a button that challenges the concept of what language is, and how dogs interpret it. When dogs hit the “love you” button, they’re often rewarded with affection. But to a dog, is “love you” an emotion, or an action? And when they press it, are they telling us they love us, or that they want us to love them?

Stephens says that Lucy’s use of the “love you” button has always been contextual.

“I’m petting her and kissing her head and then she goes over and pushes ‘love you,’ ” Stephens says of Lucy. “I tell her all the time, ‘I love you.’ I think she understands that.”

(Victoria Gammino)

Kaminski says a true test of understanding would be if, when a dog pressed a button that meant one thing, “instead the owner gives them something else. What is the reaction of the dog? Would they still accept or would they persist until they’ve actually received what they — and I’m putting this in quotes — what they ‘asked for’?”

For Tim Gupton, an associate professor of linguistics and Spanish at the University of Georgia, the talking dogs raise interesting parallels to the way humans acquire a second language. When they’re stringing together sentences such as “Love you, Mommy,” they may be picking up on a skill called “chunking,” where people learn language in phrases but do not necessarily understand their component parts, grammar or syntax.

“It would be very interesting if a dog could decompose a phrase like “I love you,” he says. “I don’t know that they actually are able to sort of break that down into its constituent parts, but I have no doubt that they very likely associate that chunk of ‘I love you’ with … getting pets, scratches, rewards.”

The learning process between dogs and the humans teaching them to use their buttons also follows a phenomenon seen in babies, when they are being taught to speak. “There are these periods children go through where they overgeneralize things,” Gupton says. For example: Linguist Noam Chomsky’s 1995 television miniseries “The Human Language” tells the story of a child whose first word was Nunu, the name of the family dog. But the child began pointing to other things — a cow, a pair of furry slippers, an olive — and calling those things Nunu, too. Maybe it was because the fur reminded him of the dog’s fur, or the black olives looked like the dog’s shiny nose. Or maybe there was no relation at all.

Perhaps people are doing a similar thing when their dogs hit their buttons. Did Elessar really want to go out? Did Harper want to play, or did she just want attention? Was Lucy just whacking at buttons for fun? When Bunny strings together a sentence such as, “Mom outside stranger bye,” is she alerting her owner to something outside the house, or just making gibberish?

I think that all of the meaning is being brought in by the human being who is listening,” says Wynne, who called it “random button presses that we, the human being observing the dog, breathe the magic breath of language into.”

It is a possibility that Devine has considered.

“I do have to say, ‘Okay, how much am I reading into this?’ How much of this is anthropomorphized and how much is like, I’ve already interpreted these buttons in this way, so I’m going to continue to interpret and it becomes its own sort of dialect?” she says. “I try and remain open to all of the possibilities.”

Nevertheless, she observes correct context for many of the buttons Bunny presses — such as “Dad bye” when her husband, Johnny, leaves the house. She finds it hard to separate the meaning of the action behind the buttons with the words. It’s a philosophical question about the nature of language.

“All words are, in their essence, arbitrary sounds associated with meaning. So I think that’s what we’re doing constantly with dogs when we’re training them — we are pairing an arbitrary sound with an action. And then that sound comes to represent that action,” she says.

The dogs in Rossano’s study might go on to acquire more than 100 words, or they might stall out after a few. Whether or not they learn to talk, they will inevitably enjoy close bonds with their owners, because of the many hours of training that go into the endeavor. And maybe that’s a reward in itself.

During one interview, Lucy hit the buttons “love you want Mommy settle.” By Stephens’s interpretation, this meant Lucy was annoyed that her mom was distracted by a reporter’s questions and not paying enough attention to her.

“Part of me is a little bit worried because it’s like, she’s already doing so well with it. And we just started basically a month ago,” Stephens says. “Oh my goodness, in a year is she going to need a computer?”

She’s joking, kind of.

Some dogs have wonderful talents, and others are just loving companions, Wynne says. But the fact that so many people want theirs to be just like Bunny reminds him of the fictional town from “A Prairie Home Companion” where “all the children are above average.” That makes every button a “love you” button, in a way.

“It’s hard not to project onto them wonderful abilities,” Wynne says. “Like the people of Lake Wobegon, we want them — need them — to be special, because we love them so much.”