Is your dog bothered by something but you can’t work out what? Do you wish they could tell you? That’s the promise behind the range of dog “talking” buttons on the market. These buttons claim to enable your dog to communicate with you by pressing different buttons that play back recorded words. While basic kits can be found for as little as $15, more sophisticated ones can cost hundreds of dollars. But the question remains: do these products actually work?
Talking buttons are a form of augmentative and alternative communication, which eliminates the use of speech for communication. Similar devices are widely used by individuals with conditions such as autism, intellectual disability, stroke, or other neurological conditions. The concept behind these buttons is simple. Owners record words like “treat” or “outside” into each button, and when pressed, the buttons play back the recorded words. This form of communication relies on operant conditioning, which is the process used to train dogs to follow simple commands like “sit.” When a dog performs a behavior and receives a reward, such as a treat, they are more likely to repeat that behavior.
One of the main influencers behind the concept of dogs “talking” with buttons is Christina Hunger, a speech language pathologist who successfully taught her dog Stella over 50 words and phrases. However, it’s important to recognize that understanding human language is a complex task for dogs. Every dog owner has experienced their dog rushing to the door even before they’ve picked up the leash, demonstrating how dogs excel in picking up on human body language cues. While dogs may seem to string multiple buttons together or press the “right” button when asked, they are likely responding to their owner’s body language rather than truly understanding language.
Animals, including dogs, are incredibly skilled at picking up on our body language cues. As the first domesticated species, dogs have spent thousands of years learning and interpreting human behavior. Clever Hans, a horse from the early 1900s, gained fame for allegedly being able to solve mathematical problems. However, it was later revealed that he was relying on involuntary cues in his trainer’s body language rather than actually possessing mathematical abilities. Dogs are even more adept at reading human body language cues compared to horses, further highlighting their ability to understand us through non-verbal communication.
When dogs are trained to use talking buttons, they are likely learning through operant conditioning to some extent. They understand that pressing a button can lead to a reward. However, dogs may not possess the ability to replicate these behaviors when faced with a new trainer or caregiver. The buttons may become a means of responding to specific body language cues from their owner rather than a true understanding of language.
Federico Rossan, the director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, is currently working on a comprehensive study analyzing the results from dogs using talking buttons. Despite the involvement of FluentPet, a business that sells pet communication products, the study is reported to be independent, ensuring an unbiased analysis and reporting of the results. This data will shed light on the effectiveness and limitations of talking buttons as a form of communication with dogs.
It is crucial to avoid anthropomorphizing our dogs and assuming they possess human-like emotions or thought processes. Dogs cannot experience guilt like humans do, and punishing them for past actions, such as chewing up a rug, is not effective. Studies have shown that dogs do not associate punishment with their previous actions after a substantial amount of time has passed. Instead, spending time with our dogs using positive reinforcement training techniques can foster effective communication.
While talking buttons may be an intriguing concept, there are numerous other ways to communicate with our dogs without relying on such devices. For example, Chaser the border collie learned how to retrieve over 1,000 toys by name through positive reinforcement training alone. Dogs are unique and amazing creatures with whom we can communicate in various ways, even without understanding our language.
While talking buttons may offer a gimmicky solution to communication with our canine companions, it is important to approach them with skepticism. Dogs’ ability to understand human language is limited, and their apparent mastery of complex tasks often boils down to reading our non-verbal cues. However, should you choose to explore talking buttons, ensuring that your dog’s well-being and training remain the top priority is essential. Ultimately, the bond between humans and dogs can be strengthened through positive reinforcement training methods that have been proven effective over time.