So…I’ve Been Teaching My Dog to Talk

I’d like to take a break from serious stuff for a moment to tell you that I have been teaching my dog, Millie, to talk. No, I don’t mean that words come out of her mouth, my social distancing and isolation have not made me insane. I mean that I am teaching her to use buttons to communicate her wants and needs to me.

Where Did I Get This Idea?

A while back, I think it was November of 2019, I saw an article about a speech therapist named Christine Hunger. Christine was teaching her dog, Stella, to communicate with her using buttons. She would model a word for Stella, record the word on a button, and then eventually, Stella would press the button to tell Christine and her partner what she wanted. Stella is extremely advanced at this point. I think Christine has been teaching her for almost a year.

I Thought – Cool!

I thought this idea was fascinating, and I wondered if my dogs would be willing to use buttons to communicate with me. My dog Curtis, who is an elderly fellow (born in 2008) already communicates quite well, but Millie, born in 2014, isn’t quite as good at letting me know what she wants. For the most part, if she wants to go out or have something to eat, she starts frantically running around the house. I have to guess whether she is hungry or needs to go outside. She has never been good at letting me know if she wants me to play or anything like that. So, I decided to buy some buttons and see what happened.

It Didn’t Go Well

Curtis, being a Labrador Retriever, gets very excited about food. He gets more excited about food if Millie is around, because he is afraid she will steal it. So, when I put a button down and tried to focus the dogs, Curtis just sort of trampled around making a mess of things. I tried a couple of times, but it became very clear to me that training Millie and Curtis together wasn’t going to work. Since Millie is younger and has issues communicating, I decided I would try with her. I cannot recall whether this was late December or early January, but somewhere around there. I would guess we have been doing this for about 3 plus months now.

It Went Much Better

Millie actually took to the first button, “Hungry” very quickly. Here you see our first lesson. I put her on the bed with me, thinking it would be easier to focus her if we were on the same level. Then I moved her to the floor, and she continued to do well.

Then we moved to the floor.

Next Steps

Now that Millie understood she could ask for food by pressing a button, you probably think she pressed it all the time. She didn’t. It took a while of me asking her if she was hungry, pressing the button, and then offering her food, before it occurred to her to press the button without me initiating it. I would say it took about a week or two to move from pressing on command to pressing on her own. I also added an outside button right away, because I didn’t want Millie’s focus to always be on food. I trained her on the outside button by pressing the button, asking if she wanted to go outside, and then taking her outside. She already knew the word outside. If she hadn’t, I would have spent a few days training her on the word in advance. I had to teach her later, which isn’t a button, but it lets her know that I am not going to do what she wants exactly when she wants it. Especially when it comes to giving her treats.

Hey, Let’s See Some Proof!

It took quite a while before I managed to record Millie using a button on her own initiative. I think the first time I managed to record her was probably in February or March.

Yes, Millie wants to go outside. First though she needs to inspect the new air purifier.

Adding Words Together

As Millie has gotten more advanced, she has started adding words and concepts together. For example, if she wants to play outside (as opposed to inside) she presses “Play” and “Outside”. Other times she puts together two separate ideas. In those cases, she just wants both those things, though she doesn’t always press them in the correct order.

Millie asks to go outside and tells me she is hungry. She pressed hungry and outside in that order, but she actually went outside first and then ate.

The day Millie first told me she wanted to play outside was very surprising. Millie kept pressing outside and play, but I was too thick to realize she wanted to play outside. I kept offering to let her go outside and then trying to play inside. This is because we never really play outside. She finally pressed one after the other and that is what clued me in. She was so happy when I got it.

This video is one I was narrating for my friends on Facebook. It is lengthy. What you see is Millie getting upset because I am not understanding her. She takes it out on the buttons and then goes and flops down in the hallway. Hopefully a treat made it better.

Poor Millie

Things are Getting Pretty Complex

Millie has gotten good at stringing concepts together. I recently added a button for “Jennifer”. I don’t think that Millie related the word Jennifer to me, but she picked up on it pretty quickly. Recently, she pressed, “Millie”, “Love You”, “Jennifer”. And yes, I found that overwhelmingly sweet.

How Do You Teach a Dog “Love You”?

You might wonder how I taught my dog “Love You”. I really wasn’t sure how to do it. I wondered, how do I explain the concept of affection to a dog? Millie, however, is very big on making eye contact with me. She stares at me in an intense way, that to me, looks like some sort of attachment or affection. Since studies show that dogs bond with their people through eye contact, I decided this was a reasonable assumption. I figured this would work for love, as far as a dog is concerned.

When Millie gazed at me in this rather intense way, I started saying, “Love You” to her. A few days later, I introduced the button. I think it took a week or two before she actually pressed it. What happened was, we were in bed and I had just turned out the light. She jumped out of bed, pressed, “Love You” and then jumped back into bed and cuddled up against me. Yes, my heart melted. It melts every time she presses that button.

Does Curtis Use the Buttons?

Curtis, my other dog, is not very interested in the buttons. I tried once or twice to get him interested, but he just doesn’t want anything to do with them. I think he has pressed the buttons a total of 6 times, give or take. The interesting thing though, is it is clear he understands the buttons and could use them if he wanted to do so.

Every time Curtis has pressed a button, it has been the correct one. He also responds when Millie presses the buttons, if he wants to do whatever she is asking. For example, if she presses “Outside”, and he wants to go outside, he gets up to go outside. If she presses “Love You”, and I respond by telling Millie, “I love you too.” If I do not tell Curtis, “I love you too, Curtis” he starts whining. He clearly understands that I am giving Millie some form of affection, and he wants the same thing. In general, both my dogs are jealous when one gets something the other doesn’t, and they let me know about it.

I see no reason to push Curtis to do something he doesn’t want to do. This isn’t an exercise about forcing a dog that already communicates quite well to communicate in a new way. It is interesting how well he has learned the buttons just by watching though.

Millie Tries to Communicate with Curtis

One thing that is fascinating to me, is that Millie tries to get Curtis to respond to the buttons. For quite a while, I didn’t understand what she wanted. She kept pressing “Millie” and “Curtis”. Sometimes she pressed “Look” when she pressed them. So I would ask for more information. I can tell her “Show me” and she normally will help me out, if she can. This time, she couldn’t, but she was clearly frustrated.

One day though, I was in the room with the dogs and Millie pressed “Millie”, “Curtis”, “Love You”. Yes, Millie told Curtis she loved him. Curtis completely ignored her. Millie has also tried, “Millie”, “Curtis”, “Play”. She is trying to get Curtis to play with her. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Curtis sometimes looks at her, but he isn’t interested in responding to her requests. Millie gets better results when she walks up to Curtis and jumps on him. I’d say she has about a 50/50 shot that he will play then. Poor Curtis puts up with a lot.

I was pretty amazed when I realized that Millie was trying to communicate with Curtis. She also has tried to communicate with my cat, Rami. That hasn’t worked either.

Where We Are Now

Right now, we have 12 buttons. I probably could have added more at a quicker pace, but I don’t feel the need. I added the last two about a week ago, and Millie is using one but not the other. The new one she is using is “All Done”. This is an entirely new phrase, so I was curious about how she would use it. The first time she used it was to tell me she was done eating. Then she pressed “Outside”. The second time she used it was when I was on a video chat. I guess she had enough of my neglecting her, and so she pressed “All Done”, came into the study, and stared at me. Millie is demanding and hilarious. My dogs are very spoiled. I have no one to blame but myself.

The 12 buttons we have are:

  • Hungry
  • Outside
  • Play
  • Pets
  • Millie
  • Curtis
  • Look
  • Love You
  • Bed Time
  • Jennifer
  • All Done
  • Come

I cannot tell you the exact order I created the buttons, but it is probably close to how I have them listed. Sometimes I introduce one new button at a time, sometimes two. It varies. Most recently, when I added new buttons, Millie was fascinated and excited about it. She definitely plays close attention to what is going on with the buttons.

This video is a bit long, I haven’t had a chance to edit it. Millie gets a new button, Jennifer.

Have Buttons Impacted my Relationship with Millie?

The buttons have definitely impacted my relationship with Millie. I think her ability to ask for what she wants has helped to reduce some stress she was experiencing. I think Millie’s quality of life has improved due to having the buttons. Now she can tell me that she wants to play. And she doesn’t have to be frantic if she needs to go out. She just presses a button.

Is It Hard to Teach a Dog To Talk?

I belong to a Facebook group of people who are trying to train their dogs to use buttons (or are simply interested) and I see that people have various levels of success. The main thing I can tell you is that it takes a lot of patience. First, you have to make sure the dog understands the word. You do this by saying the word and showing what it means by the action that goes with it. Then you can make a button and show the button to the dog. You say the word, press the button, and follow with the action.

You cannot rush your dog. S/he will learn at their own pace. That initial breakthrough when they understand they can get something if they press a button is important. The second break through, is when they realize that they can press the button any time, in other words, they can do it without you telling them to press. I think the third breakthrough is when they start stringing words and concepts together. I have seen Stella, Christine Hunger’s dog, make advanced breakthroughs that I find extraordinary. For example, if a button breaks, Stella will try to use other buttons to express the same concept. You can look for Christine on Instagram, that is where she posts most of her videos.

What Do People Think About This?

I have told a number of people about Millie and the buttons, and they are always fascinated. I told my vet, and he couldn’t believe it. I sent him one of the videos recently and he said it made his day. I have discussed this on Facebook with my friends and some people have purchased buttons to try. I don’t know how they are doing, but I think they have just started. Others have expressed fascination, and of course, everyone thinks it is adorable that Millie tells me she “Loves Me”. On the whole, I think a lot of people like the idea of a dog being able to express what it wants.

Me, I find it fascinating. Each time Millie learns a new button or expresses a new concepts is amazing to me. I also find it endlessly entertaining. Millie has always been a funny little dog. Now I find her even more so.

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