Some pet owners have even taught their canine companions to “talk”‚ÄĒnot with growls that sound uncannily like words, but with buttons.
To find out how it’s done, Newsweek spoke to two owners who are using the buttons (a form of augmentative and alternative communication) to talk to the animals.
Alexis Devine, an artist based in Tacoma, Washington, and her three-year-old sheepadoodle Bunny are an internet sensation, commonly known by their social media handle What About Bunny. The pair regularly go viral with videos showing how Bunny communicates with her owner using an array of buttons.
Before getting Bunny, her first dog, Devine decided she wanted to have “the closest relationship and best communication possible with a non-human animal,” she told Newsweek.
She became interested in the work of Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist and owner of Stella, “the world’s first talking dog,” who also uses buttons to communicate, as well as Alexandre Rossi, a Brazilian animal behavior expert known as Dr. Pet.
“I learned as much as I could about positive reinforcement training and learning theory, but I really believe it was my curious nature, creative mind and tenacity that benefited our journey the most,” Devine said.
Bunny’s education began when Devine placed a button marked “outside” by the door. “I’d press it every time we went outside and say the word,” she said. “It sounds so simple, but within a few weeks she pressed it herself for the first time. And from that moment it was game on.
“Bunny and I learned alongside each other and, in no time, she was using multiple buttons to convey larger thoughts and requests.”
Marlene Ponte, a 32-year-old community manager who lives in London, has also taught her 22-month-old miniature cockapoo Sasha to communicate, using buttons to “ask for food, treats, bones, play, go outside, go wee, settle, sleep” and more.
“She presses the buttons when I am usually watching TV or not paying attention to her,” Ponte told Newsweek. “That’s how she gets my attention and is able to communicate what she wants.”
Ponte initially trained Sasha to ring a bell by 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 of giving it a try with Sasha when she was 7 months old,” she said.
First, Sasha and Ponte tried buttons for “outside,” “play” and “ball.” Ponte said: “Sasha now has 27 buttons and is able to create small phrases like ‘Sasha + wants + treats’ and ‘Mamma helps + treats’.”
“Providing mental enrichment and stimulation is one of the very best things we can do for our animal companions,” according to Devine. “It prevents boredom, keeps them engaged and tires them out.”
Teaching your dog to communicate using buttons does all of these, she said. It also requires active participation on the owner’s part, 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 love being outside more than anything in the world, another may prefer to be snuggled up on the couch with their human.
“This truly is a partnership, and both parties will have to put in effort, ultimately being rewarded by a deeper understanding and connection with our animal companions,” Devine added.
“Encouraging [dogs] to talk using the buttons is really important as it makes them more confident and it creates a bond between you two,” Ponte said.
Devine said she never used treats as a reward when teaching Bunny to communicate. In fact, none of the buttons that Bunny uses is related to food.
“I really wanted communication to become intrinsically reinforcing to Bunny,” she said. “I didn’t want pressing buttons to become conflated with treats.”
Ponte recommended starting slowly and introducing one button at a time. “Don’t rush in introducing all the buttons, as the dog can get a bit confused,” she said. “Always reward them and never ignore them when they press the buttons.”
Devine’s videos also highlight the importance of patience, as well as never grabbing your dog’s paw and forcing it to press a button.
She said her biggest challenge with Bunny was having “no idea what I was doing. What I found was that making our own rules along the way, and allowing Bunny to teach me as much as I was teaching her, allowed for the most natural and authentic growth in us both.”