Pushing ALL My Buttons: Dogs Using Communication Buttons
Summary: Communication buttons are becoming popular among dog trainers, especially on social media. This article looks at what these buttons can be successfully used for, and where they might be less useful. It focuses on one story of how the author’s clients used operant conditioning to give their beagle opportunity to communicate their needs.
Lately there have been a lot of videos all over the internet of dogs using buttons to ask for things. The dogs ask to go out, go to the park, for dinner, all manner of things. At first it was one or two dogs, and now there’s a whole industry of buttons you can buy to record words on and dogs with tens of words of vocabulary.
I read a book years ago, Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kristen Bakis. In it, a mad scientist learns to wire hands where paws should be and alter the voice box of a dog so that they can speak in human language. The scientist was predictably cruel to the dogs he altered until they turned on him, killing him, and moved to New York. (As someone who moved to New York as soon as I had a chance, that part is perfectly believable to me!) Every time I see a dog with a whole board full of buttons and hear the conversations that the people are working to have with them, I think of that book.
It’s fuel for the imagination and the heart. Button communication is the next step from the dogs who understood words spoken to them. Chaser was the Border Collie who could identify over 1,000 toys and even knew that a new word would be paired with a toy she didn’t have a word for already. Learning to act upon words spoken to them is pretty impressive for a dog, but learning to communicate their desires via words is game-changing.
My dog is currently in the throes of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, which makes it impossible for him to settle and sleep in my apartment. I’ve had to send him to live with friends until I can figure out how to help him. How much easier would it be if he had a specially wired voice box or a giant array of buttons?
As a trainer of other people’s dogs, I have questions. I’ve trained dogs to use their behavior to request things, to communicate needs, and for their own and their guardian’s fun. It is fun, and it’s not too hard in principle, but you do really have to break things down into thin slices of information and be extremely clear so that both species truly know what they’re saying and what’s being said to them.
In some of the videos out there, guardians have given their dogs buttons with larger concept words like “love” and “later.” I have a very hard time believing that a dog grasps the communication of the concept of “later.” When a guardian pushes a series of buttons to indicate that they will “go” to the “beach” “later” I cannot see how the dog can have learned that concept. Doesn’t the dog simply lose faith that the button really means they’re going to the beach? Beyond that, if you have to leave the house, get in the car, drive, maybe stop for gas, and then go to the beach, does the dog know that one of those buttons means “beach” or do they think it means “car ride” or even “outside”?
Enter stage left a dog named Fleet.
Fleet is a beagle-hound mix who was rescued in the southeastern United States and transported to a foster home in suburban Long Island. At a rescue event in a local pet supply store, a young couple from Brooklyn, John and Jennie, fell in love with him and adopted him.
Fleet was reported to love playing with dogs, to be house trained, to enjoy people, to have been exposed to kids with no noticeable reaction, and generally to be good company. He was high energy and liked to sniff, but that was normal for a 7-month-old pup who had been through that much change in so short a time. Understanding they had some work ahead of them, John and Jennie loaded Fleet into the back seat of their car and drove back to their busy Brooklyn neighborhood.
I met them a few weeks later when they were on the hunt for a trainer who could help them handle Fleet’s lack of responsiveness, his chasing of their two senior cats, and most surprisingly, his inability to pee or poop outside at all.
Since we’re here to talk about buttons, I’ll give you the short story of the next two years of training with Fleet.
Fleet doesn’t just like to sniff. His nose is so good that he can follow the scent of an individual bird for a city block until he tracks where it flew away. He was recently sniffing a trail on a Brooklyn street, and someone started up a jackhammer right next to him and he didn’t react at all. When confronted with all the scent information in an urban environment, Fleet’s other senses can completely shut down.
We started out using classical conditioning and desensitization. Jennie’s treat pouch became a legendary example of how to carry several different values of treats for any stimulus that might crop up. We added some behavior adjustment training (BAT) skills. Jennie took online scentwork courses and started working searches with him. Jennie and John figured out a mix of dog park play, daycare, food puzzles, relaxation conditioning, and enforced rest that made it possible to live happily with Fleet. If they didn’t get the balance exactly right, though, things turned nasty.
When Fleet was overstimulated, he still chased the cats, dug into the couch, nipped ankles, had zoomies, and worst of all if it happened outside, he would bite Jennie. It was clearly a request for help because he was overwhelmed, but it was painful and dangerous for both of them. So, we trained Fleet to happily wear a muzzle and, after much thought, consulted a regular vet and a vet behaviorist for appropriate behavioral medication.
At one point, working on adding more choice and control to Fleet’s life, I suggested that we leave food puzzles out for Fleet so he could choose his own. Jennie was rightly skeptical. She was already spending a whole chunk of her Sundays doing puzzle prep for the week and she was afraid he would run through all of them in a day. We both even imagined a worst-case scenario where he did that in an hour. She’s brave and has a high risk tolerance, so she trusted me and tried it. She left plastic bins full of food puzzles around the apartment and walked away from them. Fleet ate a lot of puzzles for the first couple of weeks. Then he slowed down. He became more selective.
At that point she left some out but she stored most of the pre-made toys in a cupboard. Eventually Fleet and his nose began to come to the cupboard and request puzzles with short beagle-y baying noises. At first Jennie reached in and gave him one, but soon she learned to open the door and allow him to choose his own. He loved it! Well, he loved it except for when, after a few requests, Jennie would signal to him that the kitchen was closed and not open the door anymore.
Jennie was helping with classes I teach at PumpkinPups Dog Training, and we often teach our clients shaping by giving the dogs buttons and desk bells and working toward getting the dogs to touch them with a paw. So she bought herself a button and, just for fun, taught Fleet to press it. Then she put it down near the food puzzle cupboard and asked him to press it before she opened the door. When he got good at that she would put it down even when she wasn’t standing right there, and Fleet could press it and she would come from wherever she was and open the door so he could choose his puzzle. If she didn’t want to let him have a puzzle she picked up the button.
There’s the clarity my trainer brain craves for this button work. If the button is available then the consequence of hitting the button is available. If she left the button down all the time but didn’t always follow through, it could lose its meaning for Fleet and would certainly erode his trust in her.
There’s a button video out there on the internet where a sweet little dog is encouraged to push a button that says “couch.” The human in the video praises her and gently ushers her over to the couch. The dog, though, doesn’t jump right up on the couch. The dog looks at the human and at the camera, displaying body language that seems anxious and tentative, and only with a lot of other physical and verbal encouragement does the dog get up on the couch. Now, I don’t know anything about that family or how they trained these buttons, but from just that video it seems to me that sometimes the dog pushed that button and was not allowed on the couch. Even if I’m wrong about what specifically has happened, there’s a lack of clarity for the dog there.
In the midst of this last bit of training work with the puzzles, John and Jennie figured out that when Fleet was especially out of control in the house they could take him to his room (a small gated area under the stairs, about the size of a crate – think Harry Potter for dogs) and he would settle and rest relatively quickly and even seemed relieved. After a couple of weeks of Fleet getting to witching hour and them ushering him downstairs, they noticed that the moment they stood up to walk to the stairs Fleet ran ahead of them. Very soon he ran to his little room and waited inside for them to shut the gate behind him.
Since she’d bought a pack of three buttons, Jennie decided to make the next button “Go to your room.” She recorded herself onto the button saying that phrase, used shaping to teach Fleet to hit the button, and set to work pairing the button with going into his room. She was very careful because she didn’t want him to dislike going to his room. A safe space where Fleet could self-soothe was critical to their daily comfort with him. She put the button just outside his room and had him push it, cued him to go inside, then closed the door. She let him out right away and she did only a few reps at a time, and Fleet understood it within a few repetitions.
Next step was to put the button near the living room where the witching hour’s inappropriate behavior usually started. In no time at all Fleet would press the button to ask to go to bed instead of digging in the couch or grabbing at their clothes or barking incessantly.
Still, Jennie was careful. She was concerned that Fleet might not like being shut into his room and would want to be free to come out. If that happened, all the room button training would be wasted and his crate/room training could be poisoned. He needed to be able to enjoy his safe space. So one day Fleet pushed the button and Jennie walked him downstairs to the room. He went inside and she left the gate open and went back upstairs. Fleet came up after her and hit the button again. So she went down with him and gated him in and he went to sleep. She learned that closing the gate was part of the bargain, part of the meaning of that button, according to Fleet.
Since stuffed Kongs were kept in the freezer and not in the puzzle cupboard, Jennie made the third button a Kong button. All three were soon available to Fleet at different times of the day, but especially around witching hour. Jennie and John started to note Fleet asking for different things at different times.
Sometimes they would open the cupboard door and Fleet would sniff each puzzle very carefully until he found the exact puzzle he wanted. If he couldn’t reach that puzzle he would look to them until they moved a box or bucket until he could reach what he wanted. Occasionally he’d sniff through everything and walk away without a puzzle. Nothing seemed appealing to him. On one notable occasion he sniffed all the offerings then turned and stared at an empty pizza box on the counter. So Jennie made the pizza box into a puzzle and offered it to Fleet, who took it and trotted away to work on it.
It was clear to Jennie and John that Fleet was asking for things based on what he genuinely needed at the time. If he wanted to tear something up or chew and lick something or lie down and rest, he had a way to ask for it. He wasn’t just acting out and waiting as humans offered him things that might or might not meet his particular need at the moment. Some evenings he would ask for puzzles, a Kong, and his room and yet still not be able to settle. Clearly he was still occasionally overstimulated and needed more help.
After much observation Jennie thought that some of his behavior was requesting interaction with her and John. He likes to play tug, so that was the next order of business. The first time that Fleet successfully used his tug button I got three videos of Fleet and John dancing around the living room with a 15-foot rope playing tug. Both of them are wiggly and happy and Jennie’s laugh is the only thing you can hear on the audio. It was a huge hit!
While we were all focusing on the tug button, though, Fleet was thinking through other challenges.
John gives Fleet his last pee walk before bed. Fleet’s little room is near the front door. Fleet sleeps in his room or on a dog bed or a couch depending on his preference and behavior. One night Fleet pressed his room button late in the evening. Jennie took him down to his room but he wouldn’t go in. He trotted back upstairs and stood in the bathroom where he had a straight line of sight to where John was sitting and stared at him.
Jennie went back to the living room and sat down. Fleet hit the room button. Rinse and repeat not going into his room and going back upstairs to stand on his dog bed and stare at John. John took Fleet out for a walk and Fleet went immediately to bed when they got back in.
This sort of behavior continued until our weekly training call. I laughed and cheered when Jennie told me about Fleet’s new use of his room button. Jennie was less pleased. She didn’t like the lack of clarity. That’s when you know you’ve trained a client well, when they are more disciplined in their training than you are.
Jennie doesn’t like having the room button mean two things. It’s unclear to Fleet and it’s unclear to her and John. There’s too much room for error with a dog we’re still continuing to figure out at 3 years old. So she’s ordering another pack of buttons and the next one will be for “outside.”
What I find fascinating about this is that Fleet has been communicating the whole time. We knew that. We knew that biting Jennie and digging the couch and running in circles was communication. It wasn’t clear, though. It was a very general cry for assistance, and we couldn’t respond appropriately to it because everything we were offering was so unlikely to be the exact right thing at the exact right time. There were too many variables. By being clear, Jennie and John are genuinely meeting Fleet where he is with what he needs to the best of our ability. That ability is evolving.
This sort of communication serves Fleet, sure, but also serves Jennie and John. It’s draining to live with a dog who is wilding for big portions of the day because he doesn’t know what to do with himself or can’t access what he needs.
With the videos we’re seeing online I’m not sure that the buttons are serving the dog’s needs. It’s fun for the people and it’s sometimes fun for the dog, but I don’t know that it’s well-considered communication. If the consequence of the button is vague, I don’t understand how the dog is perceiving it. For instance, if I had my dog push a button that said my name, how would I respond? If I looked at my dog would that button mean KIZZ or would it mean LOOK AT ME? There’s nothing wrong with having my name mean “look at me.” We teach our dogs that their names mean “look to me for more information,” but I want to feel clear that when my dog learns something like that it means an action and not a concept of a human named Kizz. Those are two very different buttons and I only know how to train one of them.
To be clear, I love that people are trying to communicate with their dogs, and I love even more when people are giving their dogs choice and control to ask for things. I’m feeling a little greedy. I want more out of it now that we’ve made the concept relatively mainstream. That means we get to have so many more experiments with so many more dogs to help us learn more about what our dogs might want or need. That’s got to be great!
In order to truly understand, though, I think we need to be very clear with our training and careful with our dogs. I don’t want this communication to be frustrating for them at all. To that end, here’s a primer for teaching your dog to communicate with a button:
- Choose a consequence for the button. Make it tangible and something you can deliver quickly like throwing a tennis ball or playing tug with a toy. Be sure it’s something your dog will enjoy.
- Using free shaping (a process of rewarding successive approximations toward a final goal), teach your dog to press a button.
- When your dog is happily pressing the button in exchange for treats you can add the consequence you chose right after the treats.
- After a day or so of practice with the combination, you can eliminate the treats and reinforce button pushing with only the consequence you chose.
- Every time your dog presses the button, provide the fun consequence.
- If you aren’t in a position to provide the consequence, then put the button away so your dog can’t press it.
- If you leave the button lying around during a regular day, will your dog press it? Collect some data and let me know!
Elizabeth H. “Kizz” Robinson, CDBC, CPDT-KA, has been training dogs since 2014. She and her terrier mix, Eddie, are based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She serves private clients through her own business, 2B Dog Training, and teaches classes as part of the team at PumpkinPups Dog Training.