This is Auggie the Doggie, a 13 month old Bernedoodle at the time we began this little experiment in learning about and using Dog Speech Buttons.
It was mid-December 2020 when we laid down our first recorded button, and we are here to document our journey until we either get bored and declare it a failure, or work our way up to 20+ words and declare ourselves a success!
And just a bit of warning before we begin, this is going to be an old-school post, one that keeps growing and getting updated as weeks and months go by, as opposed to me breaking it up into many shorter, less useful posts.
I first heard about dogs using speech buttons to communicate in 2019 while studying up to be a new doggie parent when I stumbled across the Instagram account of Christina Hunger and her dog, Stella, as well as their website which chronicles her ground breaking use of recordable buttons to allow her dog to express herself in a more full and complete manner.
It is super impressive, and quite intimidating, and I looked at it as something for the experts and not for a beginner like me. After all, Christina is a speech-language pathologist, and I’m some dude who likes to cook and blow glass, not really skills that lend themselves to advanced dog training!
But in the year since then, I saw two developments that made me reconsider and think that maybe, just maybe, trying to teach Auggie how to use pre-recorded buttons to communicate would be great training, for both of us.
First, again just by happenstance, I came across the Instagram account of Bunny the Sheepadoodle who is now using some huge number of doggie speech buttons, maybe over 70+ by now! She and her parent do a wonderful job of illustrating possibilities and what it looks like in daily use.
And second, a few people starting working on creating a starter set of mats and buttons to use for adventurous dog owners who wanted to give this a try. FluentPet offers several different bundles to get started, making it as easy to get started as opening a box and recording a few words.
And that is what pushed me over the edge. Seeing someone else do it and use it, and being able to order the supplies instead of trying to recreate it myself.
As an added bonus, my daughter is something of a professional sticker maker (you used to be able to find her stickers on Etsy) and she kindly sketched out, and printed, custom stickers for this family experiment. I am not delusional and have no doubt that the stickers are more for the humans than the canine learner, but on the other hand… maybe Auggie will learn to distinguish between the different pictures after all!
I received my FluentPet package on a Friday and gave myself the weekend to read up a bit more about the process, and to my disappointment, didn’t find nearly as much information as I would have liked.
Yes, there were a few tips and tricks to be found, such as not to make your dog press the buttons by lifting their paw and pressing it down for them. And not to start with too many buttons, start slowly. And talk a lot, say the words frequently, and model pressing the buttons while saying the words.
And I even found a few suggestions for the very first word that people could start with: Outside. Which is what I decided to do.
Day #1 Button Training – Having settled on “outside” as my first word, I recorded my word on a button and placed it on one of the included mats and set it by our back door. This is the door that Auggie and I go in and out of several times a day, for potty breaks as well as playing fetch and just hanging out when the weather is nice!
Every time I wanted to take him outside, I asked if he wanted to go “outside”, pressed the button to hear the word “outside” and then repeated it to him before opening the door and allowing him to go outside.
And then… yes, on the very first day, he started to mash that button. Was it clean and delicate? No, not really. But he certainly knows the button exists and that something fun happens when he presses it!
But it got to be too much very quickly. He pressed the button, I took him out, brought him back in, gave him some water, and guess what? He pressed the button again. And again.
Which is why I now take up his button when I am not ready to take him outside, even if he asks. It has been many years since I’ve had a baby or the toddler in the house, but it reminds me of controlling the situation in a similar manner.
Did I do everything my young children wanted me to do when they wanted me to? No. And will I promise to do everything my dog wants me to do when he wants me to? No.
So I’m setting some boundaries and removing the buttons when I’m not ready for them. And encouraging the button’s use when I can be present and fully engaged with Auggie.
Day #4 Button Training – We are still working on our first button, but I feel confident enough that Auggie the Doggie understands that it is something to interact with that we are ready to introduce one, or two, more buttons.
When looking around, I didn’t really find anyone’s suggestions for next words to use, so I have decided to go with both “play” and “potty”, because those are both activities that we do after going outside and words that I think (hope) Auggie is familiar with.
I didn’t get to use them as much as I had hoped, but he was definitely interested in the new buttons, knew to press them to activate them, but I am doubtful that he has associated anything concrete with them quite yet.
Day #6 Button Training – I think I made a mistake with my choice of buttons on Day #4. Too complicated, which my son quickly, and probably correctly, pointed out to me. The first button was “outside” and the next two buttons that I chose were both activities that are performed outside, which probably makes it hard for Auggie to understand which button is reigning supreme.
Also confusing is that once he pressed either of the new buttons, “play” or “potty”, we would go outside first, overlapping the first button, making it unclear which button is in play. And I always like him to potty first before play, so if he pressed the play button, I’m in a bad situation, with no good path forward for either of us.
So time to admit defeat with my choice of buttons, and call a re-do! I have taken up the buttons for “play” and “potty” and put down two new ones, “scratch” and “hug”, two words that he knows already, can be performed very quickly after he presses them and that don’t sound alike, three characteristics that I will try to apply to most new buttons going down in the future.
Also, the two new buttons don’t overlap with the first button, so that “outside” is still very distinct from the buttons I just recorded this morning for “scratch” and “hug”. Feeling a little more confident about my learning curve with recordable buttons for my Bernedoodle.
Day #10 Button Training – We added one more today, “ice” and it seems to be a huge hit! There is no doubt that Auggie has this one figured out, and now he has a new favorite button. Oh my goodness, does he like his ice, it is quickly getting to the point where I’m having to remove the board and buttons again whenever I’m not ready or capable of fetching ice for our pooch!
Four months later! – I gave up on my button training! For now at least, there is a chance that I will come back to it, but the mat and buttons are sitting on the floor of a closet and haven’t been out for use in at least a few months.
I found that the buttons were allowing Auggie to train me, and not for me to train Auggie, which is not what I was looking for. A binding rule for me was that if Auggie pressed one of the buttons, then I had to respond. If I wasn’t ready or willing to respond to his requests, then I shouldn’t have the buttons down.
And I found having the buttons down simply forced me into reactive mode with my dog, where I was responding to his requests far too often for my liking or the lifestyle we have planned for our family.
Yes it is cute and funny when he presses a button, once or twice. But answering your dog as he presses a button every 15 seconds while you are trying to cook dinner and sit with guests or fiddle with your website all becomes too much very quickly.
Sorry Auggie, but our dog speech buttons experiment has come to an end for 2021, perhaps we’ll try again next year.