Dog Owners on How to Teach a Dog to Talk With Buttons

Dogs can be trained to do all sorts of remarkably clever things, from exercising restraint when left alone with a juicy steak to herding kittens.

Some pet owners have even taught their canine companions to “talk,” not with grunts that sound suspiciously like words, but with buttons.

To find out how it’s done, Newsweek spoke to two owners who use buttons (an augmentative and alternative form of communication) to talk to animals.

How to teach a dog to talk with buttons

An image showing Alexis Devine teaching her dog Bunny to talk with buttons.

Tacoma, WA-based artist Alexis Devine and her three-year-old bunny are an internet sensation, commonly known as What About Bunny on social media. The pair regularly go viral with videos showing how Bunny communicates with its owner using a set of buttons.

Before having Bunny, her first dog, Devine decided she wanted to have “the closest relationship and best possible communication with a non-human animal,” she said. Newsweek.

She was interested in the work of Christina Hunger, speech therapist and owner of Stella, “the first talking dog”, who also uses buttons to communicate, as well as Alexandre Rossi, a Brazilian expert in animal behavior known as of Dr. Animals.

“I learned as much as I could about positive reinforcement training and learning theory, but I truly believe it was my curious nature, creative mind and tenacity that benefited our journey the most,” Devine said.

dog puzzle
An image showing a sheep named Bunny in front of the “talking buttons”.

Bunny’s education began when Devine placed a button marked “outside” near the door. “I was pressing it every time we went out and said the word,” she said. “It sounds so simple, but within weeks she pressed it herself for the first time. And from that moment on, it was game on.

“Bunny and I learned side by side and in no time she was using multiple buttons to convey more important thoughts and requests.”

Marlene Ponte, a 32-year-old community manager who lives in London, also taught her 22-month-old miniature cockapoo, Sasha, to communicate, using buttons to “ask for food, treats, bones, play, go out, pee, settle down, sleep” and more.

“She’s pressing the buttons when I’m usually watching TV or not paying attention to her,” Ponte said. Newsweek. “That’s how she gets my attention and is able to communicate what she wants.”

Ponte first trained Sasha to ring the bell near the door when she wanted to be taken outside. “I then saw videos of [What About Bunny] on Instagram using the buttons to communicate and I became fascinated and thought about trying it out with Sasha when she was 7 months old,” she said.

First, Sasha and Ponte tried buttons for “out”, “play” and “ball”. Ponte said, “Sasha now has 27 buttons and is able to create little phrases like ‘Sasha + wants + treats’ and ‘Mamma helps + treats’.”

The benefits of teaching a dog to talk with pimples

“Providing enrichment and mental stimulation is one of the best things we can do for our animal companions,” according to Devine. “It prevents boredom, keeps them engaged and tired.”

Teaching your dog to communicate using buttons does all of that, she said. It also requires active participation from the owner, facilitating strong bonds, teamwork and active listening.

“All dogs are individuals, and we need to get to know them as such. Not all learners will need the same words on their board,” she said. “While one dog may enjoy being outside more than anything, another may prefer to be snuggled up on the sofa with their human.

“This is truly a partnership, and both parties will have to put in the effort, ultimately being rewarded with a deeper understanding and connection with our fellow animals,” Devine added.

“Encouraging [dogs] talking using the buttons is really important because it makes them feel more confident and it creates a bond between the two of you,” Ponte said.

Challenges of teaching a dog to talk with buttons

dog puzzle
An image showing Alexis Devine with her dog Bunny.

Devine said she never used treats as a reward to teach Bunny to communicate. In fact, none of the buttons Bunny uses are related to food.

“I really wanted the communication to become inherently empowering for Bunny,” she said. “I didn’t want pressing buttons to be mistaken for candy.”

Ponte recommended starting slowly and introducing one pimple at a time. “Don’t rush to introduce all the buttons because the dog may be a little confused,” she said. “Always reward them and never ignore them when they push the buttons.”

Devine’s videos also emphasize the importance of patience, as well as never grabbing your dog’s paw and forcing him to push a button.

She said her biggest challenge with Bunny was having “no idea what I was doing. What I discovered was making our own rules along the way and allowing Bunny to learning as much as I was teaching him allowed for the most natural and authentic growth in both of us.”

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