Many dog parents have heard of Stella and Bunny the famous dogs of Tiktok who communicate with their humans via buttons. And many of us are inspired by them to start teaching our own dogs to use buttons as well! In this blog we are answering some of the common questions that come up on this topic:
1. What is button training all about?
2. Are our pets truly communicating with us?
3. If I'm interested in button training with my pet, how do I even get started?
Interestingly scientists are also asking the same questions! One of the biggest canine community science studies is being conducted by the research team at TheyCanTalk.org. While the team is based at the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego they invite pet parents from all over the world to participate in this research project.
The reason behind this research? They Can Talk's mission is to discover dogs' untapped potential by teaching them to use words to communicate.
According to them, "Button communication opens up new avenues of conversation and empathy, whether your learner wants to alert you to their needs or simply show you their love. From dogs and cats to birds and horses, we have many animals learning to talk to us on this unusual but rewarding journey. "
"Through pressing buttons of pre-programmed speech sounds or words, animal learners can share their requests, thoughts, and feelings," TheyCanTalk explains. "With time and patience, learners have been incredibly successful. Some have not only been able to communicate needs and wants, but also seem to relay more abstract concepts such as feelings or time."
Button training can utilize single buttons with programmable words associated. Or kits like the one a company called FluentPet has developed which organize words into different types of speech including Who (proper nouns), Doing (verbs), What and Where (nouns), and Social, Descriptors (adjectives).
There has certainly been lots of skepticism about whether the dogs who participate are actually communicating with their owners. The Washington Post article, Can these dogs really talk, or are they just pushing our buttons? suggests several alternatives to what is happening.
- The dogs may be exhibiting operant conditioning, or receiving rewards for a desired action, in this case pressing buttons;
- The dogs could just be reading and responding to their owner's cues; Or
- The dogs could be pressing buttons randomly and the owner is interpreting the meaning.
At Petminded, it is our goal to present new dog parenting and training information with a scientific mindset. We dove deeper into this topic with Dr. Amalia Bastos from the 'They Can Talk' research team on September 29th, 2022. Amalia Bastos is a final year PhD candidate in comparative psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Before this, she obtained B.A. Hons. in Biological Sciences from the University of Oxford. She has previously worked with dogs and three bird species to investigate aspects of physical, social, and numerical cognition in animals.
Btw, if you missed the talk, you can join our Community to catch the recording!
One of the best resources on the internet is the Fluent Pet website. But you don't have to use their buttons to participate as they are available through other stores as well.
According to the team at Fluent Pet, "For over a year now, we’ve worked on developing this curriculum at FluentPet. Having sold over 40,000 kits, we’ve directly engaged with thousands of successful learners. With over 3,300 members on our research forum and over 3,000 research reports submitted bi-weekly by participants, we have a trove of information that we’d love to share with you." All this work along with the information and knowledge gathered has gone into creating a how-to guide.
Some of the tips in the guide include:
It is also helpful to understand our dog's limits and our tendency to want them to display human emotions. Dogs can certainly communicate when they need to go outside, thirst and hunger, or when they want to play. But, do they understand the concept of saying "I love you" or just know that it makes us happy when they press those buttons?
Want to learn more? Listen to our pre-recorded workshop on the Science Behind Button Training.