By now most folks have seen the video of Stella, the dog that communicates her desires through a complicated setup of buttons laid out on a board. The headlines have been overblown as one would expect: "Dog Learns to Talk", "Dog Learns to Speak", "Dog Speaks", etc... The board was designed by Stella's owner who is a Speech Pathologist. The buttons include common dog desires, such as 'outside' and 'hungry', verbs such as 'look', and 'want', and emotions such as, 'Love' and 'upset'.
Watching the video repeatedly while discussing with another trainer what Stella is and is not communicating consumed about three hours several nights ago. It dove pretty deeply into the weeds, and was fairly critical of the more ridiculous claims made by the press.
At the conclusion it was determined that Stella certainly understands the 'outside' button (the first button learned according to her owner in a CNN interview, and therefore the one with the longest reward history). She seemed to grasp a few other buttons as well, but the overall conclusion was that for right now, we are still a long haul from knowing what our dogs really want from us.
If you're interested in checking out the videos, or learning more, Stella's blog is here.
Stella may be a tantalizing first step. But to be honest, many of her words are already available to most dog owners right now without an elaborate set-up.
Dogs are communicating with us all the time, and for many people our responses are so natural that we may have forgotten how truly fantastic it is to have a house wolf telling us that they need to go outside, or that they want to play ball.
Anyone who lives with a dog for any period of time becomes finely tuned to the desires of that dog. Most dog's wants are pretty straightforward and written in bold across their actions. Cody wants 'outside' all the time. If she's not sleeping or eating, she wants to be outside. Her 'outside' button would be in constant need of new batteries. My location is irrelevant.
Dice, on the other hand wants to be where I am. Inside, outside, they're both about the same for him. It's me he wants. I trump sheep for him (not Cody! Cody would run over me to get to sheep). The only thing he finds more alluring than me is the ATV. He'll abandon me for an ATV.
Ruby wants one thing: Play. Play, play, play. She does not care where play occurs, but it needs to involve a ball, tug, or frisbee. She'll play with other dogs if she doesn't have access to her primary love (ball, tug, frisbee).
My dogs tell me when they need to go out, and when the water bowl is empty. They tell me that, excluding Billy, they want to go wherever the car is going. They tell me that running with the ATV is super exciting (but, for Cody, not as exciting as sheep). They tell me where they like to nap, and on what surfaces, and they tell me how they feel about the other dogs with whom they live.
The holes in our communication where we want dogs like Stella to lead us are deeper, and yet, in some cases, more mundane: Do you want bedding in your crate? How deep? When you're staring fixedly at the sheep, are you happy? Stressed? Excited? Compelled? Are you tired now? Do you want to stop? Are you sore from yesterday? Do you feel stressed at the vultures, or do you enjoy running and barking at them? If you lunge and carry on at the end of the leash is it because you're afraid, or at this point is it actually kind of fun to get all worked up?
These are the questions that we want answered. Stella is young, less than two years old at this writing, so perhaps her mom is onto something, and Stella will be able to answer some of these questions in the coming years.
In the mean time, without making a board of buttons, remember that your dog already has access to a very rich communication method, body language. And if we spend the time studying what they tell us, we may be surprised at how much they're already saying!
Tell us, what is your dog's favorite thing? Favorite place to lay? Favorite activity?