Can Dog ‘Communication Buttons’ Truly Enable Interaction? Unveiling the Reality

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Does your canine seem unsettled, yet you’re uncertain about the cause? Ever yearn for a way for them to express themselves to you?

Explore the extensive selection of dog “talking” buttons available on the market, promising to provide a means for your dog to communicate. Entry-level kits start at approximately $15, with more advanced options reaching into the hundreds of dollars. Check out the varied options to find the right fit for your furry friend.

However, is there concrete evidence supporting the efficacy of these products?

How the buttons work

The concept behind these buttons is straightforward: you record words like “treat” or “outside” into individual buttons. When pressed, the button plays back the recorded word. The theory suggests that with training, your dog can comprehend these words and employ them to communicate with you.

Talking buttons represent an instance of augmentative and alternative communication. In simple terms, they offer a non-speech method of communication. Comparable devices are beneficial for individuals with autism or intellectual disabilities, as well as those recovering from a stroke or facing other neurological conditions.

Can dogs learn complex communication?

A dog’s ability to learn by pressing talking buttons can be attributed to a method known as operant conditioning—the same process employed to teach dogs basic commands like “sit.” Through operant conditioning, a dog associates performing a behavior with receiving a desired outcome, such as a treat, increasing the likelihood of repeating that behavior.

The concept of dogs “communicating” with humans using buttons originated with Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist well-versed in augmentative and alternative communication devices. Hunger asserts to have successfully taught her dog Stella over 50 words and phrases, some comprising up to five words.

Comprehending human language is a highly intricate task for a dog. While dogs may appear to perform remarkably complex feats – like driving a car – they are essentially executing simple behaviors learned through operant conditioning. They have mastered a series of interconnected simple behaviors, not the skill of actually driving.

Alternative explanations

Simple explanations often underlie what might appear as intricate behavior in animals. Notably, animals excel in interpreting our body language, creating an illusion of a deeper understanding than they genuinely possess.

The case of Clever Hans the horse serves as a prime example. Hans rose to fame in the early 1900s for seemingly possessing mathematical abilities. Even his trainer was convinced of his counting prowess. However, it became evident in the trainer’s absence that Hans was actually relying on involuntary cues in the trainer’s body language to “solve” problems and didn’t possess genuine counting skills.

Dogs are likely even more adept than horses at discerning our body language cues. Being the initial domesticated species, they have spent thousands of years observing and understanding our likely actions. Consider the numerous instances when your dog eagerly heads to the door even before you’ve reached for their leash.

When we train dogs to utilize talking buttons, they are likely acquiring the skill through operant conditioning to some degree. For instance, they grasp the association that pressing a button can result in a reward.

However, in instances where dogs appear to string together multiple buttons to convey something sophisticated or press the “correct” button upon request, they are probably merely reacting to their owner’s body language. The likelihood of replicating such behavior might diminish if a new pet-sitter issues the commands.

We need more data

Federico Rossan, the director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, is currently engaged in an extensive research project analyzing outcomes derived from dogs utilizing talking buttons.

While FluentPet, a company specializing in pet communication products, is engaged, the study is purportedly independent. This implies that an unbiased individual without conflicts of interest will assess and disclose the results.

Data collection commenced in late 2020, yet there is currently no published evidence. Until then, the primary “evidence” stems from anecdotal reports provided by likely biased dog owners who wish to believe in their dog’s intelligence.

Could it do any harm?

It is significant when we alter our treatment of dogs based on our interpretations of their thoughts.

Consider the scenario where we assume dogs feel guilty about certain actions, such as when they appear remorseful after chewing up their favorite rug upon their return. However, their “guilt” expression is likely a response to your reaction rather than an experience of the human emotion of guilt, as studies have indicated.

It’s advisable not to punish your dog upon discovering a chewed-up carpet upon your return. They won’t connect your scolding or physical reprimand with the actions they took hours earlier.

In reality, some dogs will naturally show more interest in engaging with talking buttons than others. There is no valid reason to conclude that these dogs are inherently smarter than their counterparts.

Should I buy talking buttons?

If you can acknowledge and mitigate the potential risks mentioned earlier, purchasing talking buttons is unlikely to pose any harm to you or your dog, except for the impact on your finances.

Nevertheless, numerous alternatives exist for communicating with your dog without relying on such a device. An excellent example is Chaser, the border collie, who mastered the retrieval of 1,022 toys by name without the aid of an augmentative device.

Regardless of the method you choose, spending quality time with your dog through positive reinforcement training will be beneficial for both of you. Dogs are remarkable and distinct creatures with whom we can communicate in various ways, and understanding our language is not a prerequisite for this.

This article has been reissued from The Conversation under the terms of a Creative Commons license.