Have you ever wished your dog could talk with you? We all know our dogs understand a tremendous amount of language, but what if they could speak directly to us?
Christina Hunger MA, CCC-SLP, a San Diego based speech-language pathologist, has discovered a way to train her dog to actually speak to her using adaptive speech technologies: speech buttons pre-programmed with words that her dog Stella can select between to communicate wants, needs, and thoughts. Christina Hunger has a viral Instagram where she is documenting her dog’s learning called “Hunger4Words” and a website with additional resources.
In short video clips, Stella utilizes her extensive vocabulary of words programmed into recordable buttons to express not only things she wants to do such as going to the beach but also more abstract concepts like feelings and emotions as well as pairing together words.
In a recent video, Stella used her soundboard (a collection of pre-programmed buttons) to tell her owner by pushing multiple buttons in quick succession that there was something going on outside their home and that she wanted to go and see it. This new training opens the possibility of dogs communicating more clearly with us and us gaining a greater understanding of how our dogs see the world.
Teach Your Dog To Talk
Have you always wondered what your dog has to say? You don’t have to be a speech pathologist or dog trainer in order to begin building a new level of understanding about what your dog wants. Using recordable buttons is a fun way to increase the communication that you already have with your dog and it’s something that with a little bit of practice every dog can use to communicate at least basic things like wanting to go on a walk or to play.
Recordable buttons are available to purchase through many retailers. There are high-end buttons purchasable through medical and therapeutic supply companies, but you can also buy cheaper options. I found this four-pack of buttons on Amazon that I bought for training my own dogs. Each button can be recorded with 30 seconds (much more time than you need for just one word). Some owners also choose to buy foam floor tiles and velcro to attach the buzzers to, in order to keep their dog from slipping.
The buttons have a non-skid pad on the bottom which prevents them from moving around when your dog pushes the button to communicate. Hunger’s website lists these other slightly more expensive buttons also available on Amazon under their resources. Price: $20
Step By Step
The thought of teaching your dog to “talk” via communication buttons might sound daunting but at least on an initial basic level, it’s something that many dogs should be able to master. The key is patience and consistency. Rushing the process would likely get your dog pushing buttons but not necessarily really understanding the meaning behind the button they push. Dogs who are rushed in the training process are also less likely to independently use the buttons to actively communicate.
- Once you have your buttons, you’ll want to start teaching your dog to use them. The easiest way will be to pair buttons with things that are high value in your dog’s life. Examples might be playing, walks, going into the yard etc. Essentially you want to select words to start with that your dog already has an association with and that are things your dog enjoys. Struggling to come up with what words already have meaning for your dog? Hunger includes this PDF vocabulary worksheet on her website that you can use to brainstorm. For my own dog, I picked “potty” as the first word which at my house means going out into our backyard. I recorded “potty” onto one of the buttons and put it in a central place in my home we would need to pass to get to the backyard.
- Once you have a button ready, it’s time to start using it. At this stage, you will push the button every time you and your dog are about to do whatever is associated with the button. So, for example, every time I take my dogs out, I pushed the button causing it to say “potty” and then my dog and I went outside. The goal isn’t to force your dog to push the button or even to directly teach your dog to push the button in the way that you might for a button-pushing trick. Using buttons for communication, you want your dog to mirror you, by watching you push the button before doing a specific activity they will over time learn to push the button themselves to cue to you they would like to do the activity. Again, the key to this is consistency and patience.
- Over time, after watching you push the button, your dog will make the connection between the button and the desired activity. At this point, your dog will mirror you and push the button herself. When your dog uses the button give lots of praise and immediately give your dog what was asked for. So, for this example, when my dog pushes the button that says “potty,” we have a little party and I immediately take her outside to the backyard.
- As your dog masters understanding using one button, you can begin to add in more buttons for different aspects of your dog’s day. You can also introduce toys and games in your dog’s day the same way, by rewarding your dog when they push the button.
Think about how many words your dog already knows from cues for trained tricks and behaviors to people, objects and experiences such as the names of toys, the park, the beach, etc. With this approach to training, all of the words your dog already knows (as well as other objects and experiences) can all be named for your dog. And in time, your dog could, in theory, be able to use their recorded buttons to ask for those objects and “have a conversation” with you. Many people put a bell on their door and teach them to ring the bell when they need to go out. I like to think of the recordable button training that Christina Hunger is pioneering as a promising and significantly more technologically advanced and precise version of this training.