San Diego Business Journal
For pet parents who have always wished their furry friends could have conversations together, it might be time to “paws” for a moment and consider one local entrepreneur’s innovation.

“FluentPet,” a 2020 startup that’s brought Del Mar creator Leo Trottier more than $7 million in revenue, allows people to record their voices into special buttons that dogs, cats and ostensibly other trainable animals can learn to press down on with their paws in order to “talk” with their persons.

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Leo Trottier Founder FluentPet

“Dogs are very interested in communicating,” said Trottier, who studied cognitive science and artificial intelligence at the University of Toronto. “If you think about learning, it’s about attention and motivation, and that goes for dogs, cats, humans, pigs… What they’re paying attention to and what they’re motivated by is everything.”


Trottier’s FluentPet campaign with private investment platform Republic.com ended in January 2022 and raised more than $740,000 from 1,090 investors.


Trottier’s creation is an augmentative and alternative communication device – sometimes used by those considered “nonverbal” – to communicate without speaking.

 
FluentPet is customizable and can support more than 100 words in its vocabulary.


FluentPet has become a part of the worldwide internet sensation featuring dogs and even some cats who have learned to “speak” with their humans – owners who have words like “outside,” “play” and “treat” recorded in the buttons.


As part of Trottier’s system, the buttons are placed inside hexagonal tiles that fit together and can be placed on the floor where the animals have easy access to them.


UCSD Study

 
The device is also part of a study at UC San Diego with about 1,000 participants. Called “TheyCanTalk.org,” the study and project rely on people sharing video footage of their animals interacting with the buttons and board.


The study, led by Federico Rossano, director of UCSD’s Comparative Cognition, will consider different aspects of animal cognition and communication.


After finishing his undergraduate studies in Canada, Trottier, 39, moved to California to continue his education at UCSD in 2005. Several years into his cognitive science studies at UCSD, Trottier in 2014 created a device called CleverPet, a precursor to FluentPet.


CleverPet, which sold out its initial batch of 6,000 devices, was a game for dogs, using smart hardware, touchpads that lit up and the enticement of food as a reward, teaching pets through advanced cognitive and behavioral science techniques.


In 2019, Trottier “open sourced” his dog games so that people who had programming abilities could “hack” into what he’d created.


“We wanted to see what they could come up with,” Trottier said. “We went to the Maker Fair in San Mateo with a thing we called ‘hacker pet,’ and we had a video that showed what the dogs could do with a system and computer games.”


While that idea was gaining momentum, as Trottier was moving along with a plan for innovating a new game for animals, he heard about speech pathologist Christina Hunger.


Hunger and her “talking” dog, Stella, had started posting videos on Instagram about how Stella could talk by pressing buttons. Hunger, who identifies herself as founder of “the Talking Dog Movement,” later wrote a book in 2021 documenting “How Stella Learned to Talk.”


Trottier said he “thought that it was pretty cool, but most of my scientific colleagues dismissed it as cherry picking, as overinterpretation, that there was nothing real going on.”


Trottier said some of his peers also compared Stella’s ability to a horse from centuries ago known as “Clever Hans.” Hans allegedly was able to solve complex math problems but was ultimately found to be reliant on reactions of others to complete his tasks.


But Trottier, who said that with his background in cognitive science is “perfectly capable of being skeptical,” did not believe that what he was seeing wasn’t real.


“The more I watched, the more I was convinced,” he said. “It was crystal clear that Stella was doing something that was interesting.”


Hunger happened to be in San Diego so the two met to share their common ground. He said he gave Hunger some prototypes and asked her to consider swapping out her square grids for tiles, suggesting smaller buttons that would leave more room to build Stella’s vocabulary.


The two didn’t end up working together but Trottier noted that “thousands or millions of people saw what she was doing.” He said at that point he investigated groups devoted to dog “talking” on Facebook.


Trottier said he then reached out through social media means, engaged pet parents via Zoom conversations, and by August 2020 the devices he financed “by bootstrapping” started selling quickly – and well.


“The first day we did $20,000 of sales,” Trottier said.


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Alexis Devine and Bunny the dog Customer/spokesdog FluentPet

Bunny the Dog Stars on TikTok

One of those interested was a woman named Alexis Devine in Tacoma, Wash. Devine and her dog, Bunny, have millions of followers at @whataboutbunny on TikTok and through other social media hubs.

 
Devine and Bunny as well as Bunny’s sibling, Otter, are among thousands who are part of the theycantalk.org study, looking to change minds and prove that the conversations with dogs, and some cats, are not staged. While many use FluentPet, the brand is not a requirement to participate in the research.


Next up for Trottier is “Fluent Pet Connect,” which launched in January and will ship out in late Q3, he said. It will include a mobile app that will be integrated with FluentPet and will, he said, allow pets to basically send text messages to their owners.


“This is something that a lot of (users) are getting excited about,” Trottier said. “To get a notification on their phone that might say something like, ‘Outside-Play-Where-Mom.’”


Devine is ready for that next step.


“FluentPet Connect along with the app will streamline data collection and give me better information about how Bunny and Otter are using buttons so that I can streamline their learning process,” Devine said. “Who doesn’t want a text from their dog saying ‘mom, love you?’ We are very excited for this iteration of the FP product to be fully actualized.”


FluentPet recently won the 2022 TITAN Business award, competing against more than 800 entries across the world.


FluentPet
FOUNDED: 2020
CEO: Leo Trottier
HEADQUARTERS: San Diego
BUSINESS: Pet technology
EMPLOYEES: 5 full-time
REVENUE: $7 million+ (since 2020)
WEBSITE: fluent.pet
NOTABLE: Trottier said about 85 percent of those using Fluent Pet are dog owners but that cats can also make excellent learners.