As a pet parent, you want nothing more than to take the best care of your fur-baby. But as a human, it’s frustrating when you don’t always know what your dog or cat needs. So it’s not surprising that researchers—with the help of pet parents—are looking into new ways for pets and people to communicate. Enter the button trend. If you’ve been on social media, you’ve probably seen video clips of dogs and cats using buttons to "talk" to their people. But you might not know how the trend started or if it really works. Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.
How does button communication work?
Let’s start with a bit of background info. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is a term that describes non-verbal communication. AAC includes things like gestures, facial expressions, and sign language. AAC devices, like photo books and tablets, help people with speech or language impairments communicate. So, for example, an autistic child might use picture cards to communicate their needs to their parents. This same idea—using alternate communication methods—is the basis of button training for pets.
When button training, people teach their pets to press buttons programmed with pre-recorded words like "walk," "outside," "food," and "ouch." The idea is that pets can use these buttons, which are large, paw-friendly objects affixed to a board or mat and placed on the floor, to communicate more specifically with their humans. This type of communication could prove to be helpful. How often has your dog tried to get your attention by nudging or pawing at you, but you’re not sure what they need? The hope is that word buttons can fill the gap between pet body language and verbal language. And there are community science projects dedicated to making this dream a reality.
Teaching your dog or cat to use buttons.
The first thing you’ll need to do is purchase a set of customizable buttons. There are several options available, so do a little research to find one that will work for you and your pet. Then, program in the words you want your pet to learn. It’s best to start with actionable words they are already familiar with, like "walk" or "play." Once you have the supplies and have programmed your buttons, training your dog or cat to use them is based on the same techniques used to teach them basic obedience or fun tricks: patience, consistency, and positive reinforcement.
The first step in button training is to get your pet comfortable using the buttons themselves. Place the button mat on the ground, so your dog or cat gets used to it. Whenever you see them showing interest in the buttons, pawing at them, or finally pushing them, reward them with praise and pets. You can also use a clicker to mark the desired behaviors. It’s important not to force your pet to use the buttons. Let them drive the timeline when it comes to engaging with the buttons.
From there, it’s a matter of creating a connection between specific buttons and desired outcomes. For example, if you’re training your dog, you can program a button with the word "outside." Then, whenever you are getting ready to take your pup out, say the word "outside," push the button, then take them out. Over time, your dog will start to associate going outside with that button and ideally begin pressing it when they want to go out.
Are pets really talking with buttons?
Truthfully, it’s too soon to tell. However, researchers studying the topic have found that dogs, cats, and other animals appear to use buttons in contextually appropriate ways. And scientists have also studied the ability of a dog’s brain to understand and differentiate spoken words. So it’s possible word-buttons could be another helpful tool in our quest to understand our furry friends better.
There is a watch-out, though. In people’s desire to communicate with their pets, they might misinterpret an animal’s actions and see what they want to see. In other words, it may appear that a pet understands how to use buttons to tell their human what they want, but in reality, the pet could be responding to subtle, unintentional cues their person is giving. More research is needed to determine how well pets can genuinely communicate, but one thing is sure: spending time training your pet has a positive impact. Training provides mental stimulation for your dog or cat and allows you to bond more fully with your pet. What more could a pet parent ask for?