Dog “Speaks” with Soundboard, Showing Canine Language Skills

san diego pooch signals wants and needs by putting words together in phrases

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A San Diego dog communicates with her owner via a custom soundboard, People reported. The owner, a speech-language pathologist, has conveyed the meaning of 29 words to the dog, so far. Canines not only understand words, but their barks hint at different meanings, too.

Christina Hunger's "talking dog" Stella with her sound board outdoors.
A speech-language pathologist, Christina Hunger built a custom soundboard for her dog, Stella, and trained her to communicate her wants and needs. Photo by Christina Hunger via Instagram

According to People, Christina Hunger built a custom soundboard with labeled, pushable buttons for her dog Stella to use. When a button is pressed, the corresponding word emanates from it in English. After spending some time training her, Hunger says Stella now uses small phrases to communicate her wants and needs as well as a two-year-old child.

“One day, the pup was whining at the front door and started pacing back and forth,” the article said. “Hunger assumed that she needed to go outside. Instead, Stella walked to her device and tapped out ‘Want,’ ‘Jake,’ ‘Come,’ then stood in front of the door until Hunter’s fiancé, Jake, came home a few minutes later, and then Stella immediately pressed ‘Happy’ and rolled over for a belly rub.”

Without a soundboard, you can still learn what your dog is communicating with different tones of barks, similar to a human infant’s varying cries. The biggest step is learning to listen.

Dog Language, Part One

“There are five types of barking that I think are worth spitting out, as the etiology is different along with the prognosis and modification strategies,” said Jean Donaldson, founder and principal instructor of the Academy for Dog Trainers.

According to Donaldson, the five types of barking are watchdog barking, spooky barking, demand barking, frustration or “conflict-elicited” barking, and anticipatory barking and whining.

Watchdog barking, she said, dates back before recorded history. “In prehistoric societies, the value of a sentry announcing and possibly driving off intruders was significant. Such dogs may have been favored by the sharing of precious resources such as food and shelter.” Watchdog barking still has value, today. Pet owners may get frustrated by their dogs’ alertness to every passerby or leaf blowing in the wind, but man’s best friend is still looking out for us.

Spooky barking is a close cousin to watchdog barking, with one important distinction. “Plenty of watchdog barkers are pro-social to strangers,” Donaldson said. “He’s not upset—he likes people just fine—but is compelled to bark to announce that someone’s at the door. The barking of dogs who are spooky, by contrast, is not just announcing an intruder. They find the intruder scary, and so they’re delivering a threat to keep him at a distance.”

Donaldson advised performing the “Can I pet him?” test to tell the difference between these first two barks. Once a visitor has been invited into the house by the owner, if the dog allows the visitor to pet them, it’s a watchdog barker. If it takes a minute for the dog to settle down and then allow petting, the dog may be watchdog barking and spooky barking. If your dog is consistently uncomfortable around people, it may be time to speak with a professional.

Dog Language, Part Two

Dogs make “demand barks” because they’ve learned that it’s an effective strategy to get attention or to tell you they want something, whether it’s food from your plate or a belly rub. This is the pooch equivalent of “Hey! Gimme!”

The fourth distinct bark is a frustration bark, which is made when the dog can’t have something—the opposite of spooky barking. “A dog looks out the window, sees a cat on the street, would give anything to run after that cat, but is stuck inside,” Donaldson said. “A spooky barker wants the stimulus to go away; a barrier-frustrated dog wants to access the stimulus, but he’s thwarted.”

A conflicted dog barks in frustration, as well. The frustration may come from knowing what they want, but not getting it. Or, the frustration experienced during dog training while not understanding why some behaviors are rewarded while others are not, may result in frustration or “conflict-elicited” barking.

Finally, perhaps the most welcome bark in the household is excitement barking. “It’s a dog who is unglued because something super-fantastic is about to happen,” Donaldson said. “In other words, it’s anticipatory, rather than consequence driven.” When a dog recognizes the street next to the park, he or she will explode with happy anticipation.

Until we all have soundboards and teach our dogs to use English phrases, differentiating between our dogs’ barks may be the best option.

Jean Donaldson contributed to this article. Donaldson is the founder and principal instructor of the Academy for Dog Trainers, which has trained and certified more than 700 trainers in evidence-based dog behavior, training, and private behavior counseling since 1999. Ms. Donaldson is a four-time winner of the Dog Writers Association of America’s Maxwell Medallion.