Sunday, July 23, 2023

Teaching pets to talk human.

It's still too hot to write about anything very serious this week. Since I haven't seen the new movie about Barbie yet, let's instead ponder the subject of teaching pets to talk.

One of my guilty pleasures is watching Facebook videos in which cats choose from among an array of electronic buttons to speak words to their humans. There's a cat named Russell who's a master at it, but I've seen other feline adepts, too. To be fair, canine adepts also exist, but I don't watch many of the dog videos. It's not that I have anything against dogs or dog people -- it's that I have a cat.

Anyway, I got inspired last fall and had Tigs ask for a starter set of buttons for Yule. (Well, okay. I asked for the buttons on his behalf.) He's a smart boi, I reasoned, and he's pretty good at getting his point across with gestures. Plus he already knows a few human words: his name, some of his nicknames, "t-word", "lunch", "supper", "outside". I figured he would pick up the button pushing in no time.

Spoiler: he hasn't. 

That's his "I'mma bite you, Mama,
if you try to get me to hit this button
one more time" expression.
Lynne Cantwell 2023
(He did actually bite me, the little shit. But it was during a brief game of "whack Mama's hands". I'd stopped playing, but he wasn't done yet. I told you he was good at getting his point across.)

Some researchers at the University of California at San Diego are taking this phenomenon of button-pushing pets seriously enough to study it. The longitudinal study is tracking 1,600 dogs and 400 cats, many of whose owners have cameras running all day, every day to observe their pets' behavior around their buttons. One of the researchers, Federico Rossano, says he's convinced that at least a few of the dogs are pushing buttons with intent. "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have evidence that this wasn't random," he says.

As you might expect, there are naysayers. One researcher at the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania is quoted in the article as saying that humans ought to concentrate on learning dogs' innate mode of communication -- body language -- rather than asking them to learn ours. It would be one thing if the dogs in the study were saying something they couldn't express with body language, she says, but that doesn't appear to be what's happening.

But c'mon -- you could say the same thing about the process of learning another human language. You don't immediately get into a deep philosophical discussion with someone who speaks a language you don't know. A whole lot of pointing and gesturing goes on to start with; as you pick up more of the other person's vocabulary, you begin to catch the nuances. Maybe our pets aren't there yet.

I get that people don't want to anthropomorphize companion animals. But isn't that speciesist? I mean, thanks to certain religious teachings, humanity has long fancied itself to be made in God's image, and many folks have taken that to mean that we're a higher life-form than all others -- and that misapprehension has caused the destruction of the planet's natural resources and the subjugation of peoples conveniently judged to be less than human. Even other humans.

And come to find out, we're not the only higher thinkers on this rock. Dolphins are now thought by some to be the second smartest species on the planet -- although this list at How Stuff Works puts them third, behind chimpanzees. Rounding out the How Stuff Works top five are orangutans, elephants and crows. Pigs are sixth, followed by squirrels, pigeons, octupi and rats. Another list mentions African gray parrots as smart cookies, too. (Is it significant that we consider several creatures on this smart-animals list to be vermin? I'll leave you to decide.)

Yes, yes, I've noticed that dogs and cats aren't on the list. But that doesn't mean they can't learn new tricks -- including how to speak human by pushing prerecorded buttons.

I'm looking forward to the results of this study.


To be fair, I haven't been consistent in training Tigs, which I'm sure is the biggest factor in his inability to pick up the concept. Then again, he has me trained pretty well, which is probably all he really cares about.


The water leak recovery is moving ahead. This past week, the contractor closed up the holes in the ceilings and put that texture stuff on the patches. (This apartment has textured walls and ceilings throughout, for good or ill.) This week, they'll be back to paint the bedrooms, closets, and hallway. I ordered the new flooring for the bedrooms yesterday; that should be in by the end of this week. I'm hoping it'll all be done by Lughnasadh (August 2nd, give or take a day), but it'll probably be a few days later. I cannot wait. I'm very tired of everything that was in the office/craft room closet cluttering up my living/dining room.


These moments of cross-species communicative blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay cool, if you can!

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