It’s been a few months since I first read about Bunny, a dog that supposedly uses a vast network of buttons with recorded messages to talk with her human. I’ve used that time to read the media coverage of her feats, which is disappointingly lacking in critical thinking, and to consider the idea of teaching dogs to talk to us.
Bunny’s human and the FluentPet company, which makes the buttons and hexagonal boards with which to network them together, are not the first to try to teach dogs to talk (or do math). Researcher and author Sean Senechal devised a dog sign language system several years ago.
I tried both and find them to be extremely complicated ways to teach dogs something they don’t need to know: Human language. Dogs communicate with us constantly and effectively. If we’re not getting it, that’s because we’re not trying hard enough, not because the dogs need to learn to use English words.
These tools are complicated in that teaching the dogs to use them requires many steps, much practice, and a degree of consistency that few humans are able to achieve. You have to learn the signs or program the buttons. Teach the dog what each sign or button means. Practice; reinforce correctly, in a timely manner, over and over and over again. Then — hope that your dog agrees to go along with it!
Cali doesn’t want to talk
I bought a test kit of 2 buttons from FluentPet and went to work trying to teach Cali to use the button to go outside. She already knew the “touch” cue and was able to push a button, so I didn’t have to start at the very beginning. I recorded, “Outside, please.” My — I thought reasonable — goal was to teach her buttons for outside and play, then to try to convince her to distinguish between wanting to go out to play ball and needing to go out for bio-breaks. And getting her to ask in a way I might hear if I was upstairs working, rather than sitting by the door.
Outside is an easy place to start, because you, the human, can reliably open the door and let the dog out any time you or the dog hits the button. The next step is in the dog’s paws: She has to make the leap from going out when you push the button and let her out to asking to go out by pushing the button herself.
Cali would push the button for a cookie. She would push the button before going out if I insisted, but she really, really did not see the point.
Cali clearly communicated that she did not want to do this. She’d look away from the button. Do elaborate stretches. Sit staring at the door. Look at anything but the button. Even walk away. This from a dog who always wants to go out.
She was perfectly happy asking to go out in her usual ways. Another problem we quickly discovered is that the button has pretty poor audio quality and low volume, so … it would only be helpful if I were right next to the button.
I decided to stop bugging Cali and see if Koala wanted to talk.
Koala doesn’t need buttons to talk
Koala is quite an effective communicator. She, too, thinks the buttons are silly.
We don’t need to jump through — or try to force our dogs through — silly hoops yo get them to talk with us. They already communicate clearly.
And, as much as I like the idea of encouraging dog people to spend time teaching their dogs new skills, I’m pretty sure this is not the right way. It’s frustrating, for both the dog and the human. It’s not easy to come up with ways to explain the concepts you’re trying to teach to the dog. Using buttons or choreographed paw movements to “talk” to us is not a normal doggy thing to do.
Cali and Koala and I get much more enjoyment spending our time together going on smell walks, snuffle-matting, playing ball, or learning Rally. In addition, I think that the claims about what dogs are saying when they use the buttons are overblown. That’s a topic for another post, though.