Q&A Series

We sat down with some pioneers of animal language learning to ask them about button teaching, cognitive science, Bunny, and more!

Leo Trottier | Monday, December 28, 2020

Leo is a unique blend of cognitive scientist, software engineer, product designer, and entrepreneur.

He is founder and CEO of CleverPet, a startup that uses smart hardware to teach pets automatically through advanced cognitive and behavioral science techniques, as well as the developer of FluentPet.

He’s also an alumnus of San Diego's EvoNexus and the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator (powered by Techstars).

He has degrees in cognitive science from the University of Toronto and UC San Diego, and started CleverPet while a PhD Candidate at UCSD.

Before CleverPet, Leo ran Scholarpedia, Wikipedia’s academic equivalent, where he worked with Nobel Laureates to "wikify scholarly canons."

Alexis & Bunny | Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Alexis Devine, the Tacoma-based artist and designer perhaps best known for her role as Bunny the talking sheepadoodle’s mom and teacher, began teaching Bunny to communicate via AAC devices in Fall 2019 after seeing videos of speech pathologist Christina Hunger working with her dog Stella.

By the time Alexis connected with CleverPet founder and cognitive scientist Leo Trottier in May 2020, Bunny had mastered 24 word buttons.

She now has 78 buttons, 5.5 million TikTok followers, half a million Instagram followers and her very own website, in addition to a growing number of headlines. Over the past few months Alexis and Bunny have been featured on GMA, The Wall Street Journal, The Seattle Times, BBC, Inside Edition, Mashable, Buzzfeed, The Verge, The Guardian, NBC's Today, and dozens more.

Check out our recent Q&A with her and Bunny!

Time-Stamped Questions:

[00:35] Can you just tell us a little bit about who Bunny is and how you're teaching her to communicate?

[01:16] How many buttons does Bunny have on her board right now?

[01:24] You started very young with Bunny but is this something that older dogs can learn how to do too, or is it something you have to start with when they're very young?

[01:46] Can you take us through how you teach Bunny to use these buttons on some of the more tangible words like “cat” or “outside” versus some of the more abstract words like “love” or “mad”?

[02:58] Did you do the same kind of modeling method for both the very concrete words and the more abstract words?

[03:50] Words like “why” “where” “what” “when”... How do you work through those?

[04:35] How many hours do you spend training Bunny on these words? When you first started versus once you already had an understanding of some words, what was that timeline like?

[05:50] How is this NOT a trick, and how do you then go about engaging Bunny to interact with the board to answer questions and that kind of stuff?

[07:26] What about when you're on the go? Does Bunny ever get frustrated when she doesn't have access to her buttons?

[07:56] A lot of people have picked up on the fact that you also have a cat, and Bunny seems to be kind of obsessed with this cat. Is there a reason your cat isn't learning to communicate using the buttons as well?

[09:12] You said you had 78 buttons. How do you organize them?

[10:31] Why did you name her Bunny?

[10:50] Have you noticed that Bunny's personality has changed at all since she's learned this new way to communicate with you?

[11:18] Is there a conversation that you guys have had using the buttons that has surprised you the most?

[11:50] Speaking of “ouch,” a lot of people want to know how you teach something like that while being ethical about it?

[12:52] How do you balance things like potty training with the consistency of using the buttons? Because obviously if you're potty training your dog, you might not want them to go out at any time that they want to go out, so how do you balance that?

[13:48] If you’re traveling with Bunny, do you bring the buttons with you?

[14:39] Do you recommend using your dog's paw to teach her to use the button, like hand-over-hand?

[15:34] You mentioned that you recently added a word that Bunny didn't know before. Does that mean that the majority of the words that you add buttons to, that she already knows the concepts?

[16:22] How do you teach the concept of time? “Now”... “later”... how do you teach a dog “later”?

[18:00] is Bunny learning new words faster, or about the same speed, or is there no way of knowing?

[18:32] What buttons have you found to be essential for basic conversation? Like maybe the first 15 or so to introduce?

[20:02] How many new words do you add at a time? Would you add “morning,” “afternoon,” “night” around the same time so that you can help her understand the differences, or one at a time?

[20:47] Have you noticed whether or not Bunny presses specific buttons in a consistent order? For example “play now” versus “now play”?

[21:07] Does Bunny’s plan of learning stop after a while, or are you guys just exploring her full potential?

[21:41] Does that include all tenses of the words — past, present, future — do you think?

[22:15] Do you bring the button outside with you for “poop” so that you can then model it while it's happening?

[22:34] Is your husband dedicated to this too? Any issues with inconsistency with training between the two of you?

[23:41] You mentioned that she's not very treat-motivated, or you try not to use treats to motivate her. What is she motivated by in terms of learning the buttons?

[24:39] How do you handle if she has a tantrum using her buttons? What do you do then?

[25:25] Some people use hand signals with training. Have you ever tried combining the words with hand signals, or do you do it separately? How does that work?

[26:25] Will you try to teach her pronouns at any point?

[27:26] Has Bunny ever spoken to another animal also using buttons, and is that something that you might try at some point? If Bunny and Stella were in the same room, what do you think would happen?

[28:21] You mentioned this research that you're contributing to, and at the last TheyCanTalk Show, we interviewed Federico Rossano, who is conducting this big research project with a lot of different animals. What are you hoping to find out from the research?

[29:27] Do you work full-time while working with Bunny?

[29:49] Approximately how many times a day would you say, on average, Bunny hits a button?

[30:45] How proficient do you wait for her to be with the newest button before adding more?

[31:46] Have you seen any examples of Bunny coining her own phrase to mean something that she doesn't have a button for yet?

[32:24] Someone in the chat said that they saw the videos of her existential crisis. Does she recognize herself in the mirror now?

[33:06] Going back to the study that we were talking about, you have multiple cameras set up. How many do you have at this point, and is the camera always on, or is that something that you can control?

[33:49] Someone in the chat says “We've started using the buttons last week. My Weimaraner is as intense in pressing the buttons as anything in her life. Do you have any tips to get her to be gentler?”

[35:06] What has it been like to go from nearly zero to six million followers in just a few months?

[35:53] Are you concerned about privacy with all the cameras around?

[36:27] From the chat: “I teach my dog all the commands in English — like “sit,” “lay down,” “stand up,” “stay” — but normally I would just speak Vietnamese, [my] mother tongue. If I start to teach my dog to use these buttons, would you recommend me to use English and always speak english to my dog, or should I use my mother tongue?”

[37:40] Does Bunny ever try to use buttons to get a treat?

[38:29] What's your favorite, or the most interesting, thing that you've learned about Bunny that you maybe wouldn't have known if it weren't for the buttons?

[39:39] Have you sought out research on AAC for humans and children to incorporate into your practice with Bunny?

[40:44] Which words do you recommend to start with for beginners?

[41:37] When you're first starting out, is there a place where you can go that you would recommend to get these buttons, or the board, or any other information?

[42:38] Does Bunny communicate with guests in your home or just with the family?

[43:16] Would you consider adding more vocalization buttons like you have for the question, the “Hmm?” sound button?

[43:56] If Bunny starts to play without using the button first, do you then go back and model the button before you initiate play, or do you ask Bunny to press play before you then play with her?

[45:27] How and when did you first introduce the “Hmm?” button?

[46:24] What influences your word choice with each new button that you do add?

[47:15] Prior to Bunny, did you have dogs, and did you have any kind of dog-training experience?

[48:12] What do you suggest for people who go to work now or after the pandemic — should the buttons be put away when they're not there to respond? (answer continued at [49:32])

[48:33] How do you think your approach differs from that of Christina Hunger?

[49:55] How does it make you feel when Bunny tells you that she loves you?

[50:18] When Bunny is upstairs and she wants to express something, will she indicate to you to come downstairs or does she vocalize/bark or something like that?

[50:44] How do you introduce the concepts of time? That sounds really hard to model?

[51:20] How do you differentiate “I love you” from “scritches”?

[52:20] From the chat: “Right now I have one button per HexTile. Any tips on combining buttons onto one HexTile?

[53:15] Have you thought about teaching her the days of the week?

[53:28] Do you recommend having a singular person's voice with the button, or does it matter if it's mom or dad's voice?

[53:58] How do you envision Bunny to be in five or ten years?

[54:46] Now that Bunny has so many buttons, do you just branch an additional tile of the same type next to each other, or do you arrange it once you've filled up all of the category tiles? So if you have let's say 10 action words, how do you branch off of that existing action tile? How do you go about arranging that?

[56:00] What's Bunny's most used word?

[56:58] You mentioned you're an artist. What kind of art do you do?

Prof. Federico Rossano | Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Curious about our approach to research at TheyCanTalk.org? Interested in understanding more about the state of language research in non-human animals?

Check out our Q&A with UC San Diego Professor of Cognitive Science, Professor Federico Rossano!

Prof. Rossano received his PhD in Linguistics from the Max Planck institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University, Nijmegen (The Netherlands) and has worked as a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Germany).

His current research adopts a comparative perspective on social cognition and is focused on the development of communicative abilities and social norms in human and non-human primates.

Time-Stamped Questions:

[00:57] Can you tell us a little about your research interests your lab and the kind of research that you do?

[02:25] Can you tell us about the They Can Talk project and what it’s about?

[04:06] Can you tell us in layman terms what operant conditioning is, and how is this study either similar or different to that?

[12:11] Are you likely to have a greater success training a puppy versus an adult, or are there certain breeds or breed characteristics that might make it easier to teach button-using?

[17:28] As I mentioned, I myself contribute data to this research, but I’m personally not always great about submitting videos or word updates. Why is keeping track of those things so important to this research?

[20:40] How about some more abstract concepts, what do we know about animals understanding of those abstract concepts such as emotions?

[23:44] I would love to talk a little bit about inflection. If your tone of voice is happy or sad, do you think it’s more tone based or do they actually understand the context?

[26:49] We know that animals do pick up on tone. Would it be helpful to mitigate that bias by recording our voice unto these buttons or is it better to record with like a flat tone of voice so that we are not putting our own biases towards them and helping them learn the actual context, or does that actually help them even more?

[30:31] We talked about how this is not natural behavior necessarily. So if your learner is communicating something clearly in a non-verbal manner, should you still encourage them to use the words?

[33:24] What is the ultimate goal of this study?

[38:01] Speaking of what it takes to get there, what happens if we train them in correctly or inconsistently?

[42:09] I know this research is obviously far from finished, but have you noticed so far, in terms of dogs kind of putting together grammar, have you noticed any consistent grammar usage with dogs so far?

[44:04] How long do you anticipate this study to continue for?

[46:41] We’ve talked a lot about dogs doing this. and we talked a little bit about other animals as well. but is there any anticipated results for other types of animals such as cats using these buttons?

[49:14] For anyone watching this, if they have a dog or a cat, a ferret, should they get involved or contribute some data to the study?