How to Teach Your Dog to Talk
But what if we could take it a step further? Imagine if your dog could express themself with language, stringing words together to form complete, and often relatively complex, thoughts.
Speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger, MA, was not satisfied with simply imagining. The idea that dogs might be able to learn their own form of basic English—when given the right accommodations—wasn’t too far-fetched for her. So, Hunger began an experiment using special paw-friendly speech buttons, pre-programmed with words for her dog Stella to express her thoughts.
View this post on Instagram
I love hearing what Stella has to say first thing in the morning! • At 5:50 AM Stella woke up, came out of the bedroom, and stretched over to her device to say, “Bed all done. Come outside.” • It always amazes me to see Stella communicating to share information, and talk about what’s happening rather than just requesting something from us. Yes, Stella requested to go outside, but she also narrated what was happening first by telling me she was all done sleeping. • Now, wake up everybody, and go enjoy the day!! 🐶❤️ • #hunger4words
In the above Instagram post from Hunger's viral @hunger4words account, Stella tells Hunger good morning by saying "Bed all done. Come outside." Dogs thrive on routine, so it's no surprise—yet still fascinating—that they would narrate their routine when given the appropriate tools.
Teaching Your Dog to Talk With Buttons
If you've always wondered what your dog would say if only they could speak, you'll be glad to know that you don't need to be a speech pathologist or even a dog trainer to begin developing their vocabulary with buttons.
With a little bit of practice and positive reinforcement, any dog can learn to communicate at the very least basic ideas, like asking to go to the beach or to have their water bowl refilled. Some have even been shown to understand more abstract concepts, such as the comprehension of time, as demonstrated through their proper use of the word "later."
Check out five genius talking cats & dogs to watch on Tik Tok.
What You'll Need
First off, you're going to want to purchase a set of custom recordable buttons.
Choosing First Words
Once you have your buttons, it's time to begin training your pet to use them. A good way to start is to pair buttons with things your dog really likes. For instance, some good first words might be "walk," "outside," "park," or "play." Pick words that your dog already associates with their favorite things.
Try to think of words your dog is familiar with. When you say the word "park," does your dog get excited? If so, "park" will be an excellent word to start with. It might help for your dog to watch you record the message, and then for you to demonstrate that it'll play back whenever it's pressed.
You may be tempted to start with food-related buttons, since they're so easy to reinforce. However, this is not always recommended. If they learn to associate the buttons primarily with treats, it can become difficult and frustrating for both you and your pet when it's time to learn other words. As this is such a new science, the research isn't there yet to conclude this always to be the case, and some dogs do okay with food-related buttons early on.
Once your button is ready, it's time to start reinforcing the concept it represents. To begin with, you will push the button every time you and your dog are about to do whatever is associated with the button. For example, if you're going to the beach, you would press the button before heading out the door. You might even want to bring the button along, and press it once you've arrived.
This is exactly how Polly learned the word "beach":
Important: Do NOT force your dog's paw to press the button. Hand-over-paw training will prevent your dog from learning to associate their buttons with words naturally and on their own. They'll know you want them to press the buttons, but it won't necessarily teach them why.
Finding Their Voice
Over time, your dog will make the connection between the communication button and its associated activity. The goal is for your dog to mimic you, and push the button themselves. Every time this happens, make sure to heap tons of praise on your dog and immediately give them what was asked for. For instance, if your dog presses their "outside" button, make sure to open the door for them right away to reinforce the association.
Intermediate & Advanced Words
Once your dog has mastered the word "outside," you won't need to necessarily always grant them their request when the button is pressed. Indeed, disagreements are often tremendous opportunities to teach new words.
Try adding a "later" button. When your dog presses the button for "outside," you can respond by pressing "outside," then "later." Wait a short period of time—perhaps five or ten minutes—before allowing them to go outside.
Once your dog understands the concept of "later," it may prove relatively easy to teach them words like "now" and "all done."
"Love you" is a phrase both dogs and cats have been shown to use, though their understanding of it might not be the same as ours. They might associate it with pets, snuggles, and affection at first, for example. If you introduce a dedicated word for "pets," their understanding of "love you" might improve.
Many dog moms & dads report that their dogs tell them "love you" every morning and every night—which to us is the sweetest thing ever, regardless of how complete their understanding of the concept might be.
Get your own 4-Pack of recordable communication buttons here. Together with jigsaw-style foam tiles and double-sided velcro adhesive, you'll have everything you need to get your dog talking in no time.