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Button Babies: Is Training Your Pup to Use a Button Kit Worth It?

Social media is filled with videos of dogs and even a few cats using button panels to “talk” with their owners.  Many pet parents consider such voiced communication with their fur babies to be a dream come true, but experts are still on the fence about whether these button babies are indeed exhibiting enhanced communication skills.

About Button Panels:

The concept of speech buttons was first developed in 2019 by speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger, who used her knowledge of toddler and baby pre-speech techniques to teach her dog Stella how to use buttons to “voice” her needs.  Since then, the idea has taken off in a big way with numerous companies offering button kits ranging from $30 to $200 to pet parents eager to “talk” with their fur babies.  Most pet mums and dads start out with two to four paw-sized buttons and record a word for each button that they want their pup to learn.  The buttons are then labeled and attached to a slip-proof mat in a specific order, so that the dog knows the position of the word he wishes to “say.”  Buttons include simple words such as “outside” or “treat” as well as more complicated emotional expressions such as “love you” and “angry.” Pet parents believe that in this way their pups are generally communicating in the same way as humans, with especially advanced pups acquiring a vocabulary of over a hundred button words.

The Science:

As with all things science, there is considerable debate about whether the button babies are communicating or simply exhibiting operant conditioning.  Some experts are skeptical that the dogs are communicating like toddlers and believe, instead, that the buttons are a “trick” learned by the dog in order to get a desired response from their humans. In this argument, button dogs are no different than dogs that sit, fetch, or roll over to get rewards such as praise, treats, or outings.  Experts point out that our dogs already communicate with us and other dogs through body language.  This is their natural communication method and learning to understand their body language would enhance our relationships with them more than trying to impose human communication techniques on them.

However, these experts’ point of view is not definitive, as the scientific research on button kits is incomplete.  The kits have only been around since 2019, and the spread of this technology has outpaced the research on its efficacy. There is currently a study at the University of California, San Diego that includes the data from approximately 10,000 pet parents from 47 different countries using button kits. A small subset of this group will have cameras installed in their home to capture the dogs’ interaction with the buttons 24/7 to try and determine how meaningfully these dogs are communicating with their humans.  The study looks at such questions as whether breed behaviors change due to the use of the buttons, and how fast certain dogs learn certain words.  The scientists will also visit the dogs to know if they are pressing the buttons randomly for treats or are spontaneously communicating with humans.  As the study is still in its initial phase, scientists are reluctant to offer any conclusions based on the current data.

Should You Get a Button Kit?

Despite the inconclusive science behind the button kits, many pet parents wonder if they should get on board with the latest trend. There are a few considerations to keep in mind before deciding to train your pup with buttons.

1. Videos may be misleading:  

The videos of adorable pups (and a few cats) using buttons to tell their parents they love them are compelling…who wouldn’t want to hear that from his fur baby?  However, the videos you see are not complete.  You do not know how many takes it took for the pup to get it right.  Also, the video may be the result of a rehearsed trick by the dog, who has been trained to press a certain button in a certain position and order to get a treat, not the random communique of a dog wishing to express a complex emotion.  If you do decide to begin training your pup on buttons, keep your expectations in check and ignore the videos.  It takes time and patience for dogs to use buttons and only a few very advanced dogs will build a large enough vocabulary to express multi-word sentences.

2. Don’t Ignore your dog’s current communication methods:  

Has your pup ever come up to you uncalled and leaned against you? Does he want to sleep next to you and lick your face in the morning?  Does he stare dreamily into your eyes and wag his tail excitedly whenever he sees you?  If so, your pup has told you many times over that he loves you.  Does he walk to the door or to the treat cupboard and wag his tail?  If so then he has told you that he wants to go outside or eat respectively.  Dogs have been communicating with us since their domestication, and as of yet there is no evidence to support the idea that buttons will enhance their natural abilities. Stay attuned to your dog’s body language and be mindful of your own to better communicate with your pup and strengthen your bond. 

3. Use Buttons like any other dog toy:  

Although there is still a lack of evidence to support the efficacy of button kits, this does not mean that they are not a fun way to interact more with your fur baby.  Whenever you teach your dog a new trick, you increase the bond between you.  Dogs find learning new skills engaging, which staves off boredom and is both mentally and physically stimulating for them.  If you view the button kits as just another toy and have fun with your dog as you train him to press certain buttons, then the kits could be beneficial.  However, if you impatiently try and emulate the videos on social media, you will only end up frustrating your pup and breaking the trust between you. Enjoy training your pup with the buttons in the same way you would enjoy a round of fetch or teaching him to play with any other interactive dog toy.

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