HOW DID YOU TRAIN HER TO USE THE BUTTONS?
My #1 most asked question and probably the hardest for me to answer, but I will try my best.
WHEN AND WHY DID YOU START?
It feels like forever, but Miso got her first button back in May of this year, less than 6 months ago! Like so many others, my family was inspired by @hunger4words. We asked ourselves, “what if Miso could be given a voice?” As her mom, I will unashamedly jump at (almost) anything to improve our communication, so we decided to give this a shot. Fast forward, 6 months later and here we are.
For those who may be unfamiliar with @hunger4words, Christina Hunger is the woman behind the Instagram account and the account is where we learned about the use of voice recording buttons as a way to give your pet a voice of his or her own. A dog mom and a speech-language pathologist, she took the community by storm when she started to share videos of her dog, Stella, communicating with the buttons. This started with her first post in July of 2019. Not too long ago!
HOW DID YOU KNOW HOW TO TRAIN HER?
To be honest, I didn’t know. I wasn’t even sure it would work when we started on this journey. I kind of just tried it and improvised along the way. When I started back in May, there was not a lot of information available. Since then I’ve seen an exponential increase in the number of families that are now incorporating button training into their homes which is very exciting to see!
Having said that, this is still very much new territory. I have not seen anything official out in terms of a step by step tutorial, but if you want to learn more @hunger4words has a website where she answers some FAQs and has a few blog posts of her own! Her videos of Stella on Instagram have been and continue to be a great resource for us.
OKAY, BUT HOW DID YOU TRAIN MISO?
I guess, at the end of the day, people still want to know how I train Miso, which is understandable. Given the limited amount of information, the best way to learn is to converse and see what others are doing.
So here is what we tried.
HOW MANY BUTTONS DID YOU START WITH?
I decided to introduce Miso to one button at a time. The first button was the most difficult as it took several weeks for her to understand that pressing the button both generated sound and the sound was a way of communicating to us.
WHAT WORD DID YOU START WITH?
I choose a word that Miso already understood and one that we used daily. For Miso, I started with ‘treat’ which was helpful because it meant she was motivated in figuring out how to use it.
If your pup is highly food motivated, and you are concerned they may overuse food related buttons, you may choose to use a different word. You get to decide what buttons you want to use for your dog based on how you want them to communicate with you and how your pup is motivated.
For Miso, I was not concerned with her overusing the ‘treat’ button. She loves to press it for treats, but she is also very much in tune with my tone and body language. She knows when to stop asking.
An alternative button choice could be ‘outside’ especially if you take your dog out routinely for potty breaks. This word is much less frequently used in our household as Miso takes care of business inside, so was not an ideal first word choice.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE WHAT BUTTONS TO GIVE MISO?
I would only introduce buttons with words that Miso already knows. If she did not know the word yet, we would teach it to her first and then incorporate it as a button for her.
HOW DID YOU TEACH MISO HOW TO USE IT?
We started with this pattern. Speak It. Press it. Do it. Speak It. Press It.
You simply want to demonstrate usage and show the resulting behavior. It does not have to be in this strict order, but you get the idea. So for Miso, I would say treat, press the button, give her a treat, and probably say and press it again after she receives her treat. The goal is for them to one day press it on their own after watching demonstration after demonstration.
Don’t be discouraged if they don’t get it the first few times. Miso would actually run away from the buttons when we first presented them to her. It took her about two weeks before she pressed her first button.
Note that @hunger4words recommends not using “Hand Over Paw”. You can read more about it here. Well, mom was not that patient, and we did do it a few times. It did not seem to help with Miso’s learning process, but it did not seem to be detrimental to her learning either. She did get it eventually so if you did “hand over paw” I think it is going to be okay. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have been more patient.
DOES MISO EVER HIT THE WRONG BUTTON?
All the time!
- When she gets extremely excited, she will accidentally hit the wrong buttons. Most of the time, she will catch herself once she hears the incorrect word produced. Other times, she will look at me to see if I will let her “get away with it” because most times, she knows that I know what she wants.
- When we introduce new buttons, she will press randomly to observe how we respond.
- When placement is changed. I will spend some time on this.
To communicate with the buttons, Miso needs to remember where all the buttons are placed. It is not as easy as it seems and I forget sometimes too! While we do not move the placements of her existing buttons, the addition of new buttons will make the entire “board” look different to her and she will need some time to adjust. To help with this, I often do drills with Miso so she can develop muscle memory that will help her.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY DRILLS?
For the longest time, from Miso’s perspective her ‘treat’ button was placed in the front row next to her ‘play’ button. Recently, we added an additional row of buttons so a ‘hungry’ button now sits in front of her ‘treat’ button. While we did not move the ‘treat’ button, the placement has changed from Miso’s perspective. The button is now missing from the front row. It has moved to the second row. The muscle memory she has developed hitting that ‘treat’ button all these months now required some adjustment. She will need to learn to take an additional step, move beyond the first row to get to her ‘treat’ button. Noticing some confusion, I did some drills with her to help reinforce the new positioning. I took a plate of treats, presented them in front of her, and asked her to tell me what she wanted. I do this about 10 times in one sitting where she will run back and forth to hit the ‘treat’ button. This has proven to be helpful in her learning.
WHAT IS MISO’S PROGRESS LIKE?
Miso’s progress always feels like 5 steps forward 3 steps back and this is primarily due to new button additions. Additions to the board is always a good sign for us because it means she is ready to take on another word, but as explained, these also result in some confusion. Because of this, her progress never feels like a straight line. It was discouraging at first, but now that I have a better understanding on the source of confusion, I feel much more confident in progressing with her.
HOW DO YOU KNOW MISO REALLY UNDERSTANDS OR IF ITS JUST LUCK?
As mentioned above there are occasions where Miso seems confused. When this happens, I will ask her to sit and we pause together. Kind of like a reset. I will then repeat my question and we go from there.
When Miso does press the right button, I try to respond quickly with positive reinforcement. I hope that this interaction allows her to realize that she was successful in communicating.
Another thing I have noticed is that Miso will press a button and then stop to look at me or in my direction and pause. This suggests to me that she realizes she is communicating and is waiting for a response. I do my best to always acknowledge Miso when she presses a button even if I do not always decide to do as she asks. For example, if she presses ‘mommy’ I will always make a point to walk over to her to continue the conversation. Sometimes she will press ‘mommy’ while I am in my office. I don’t see it, but my husband says she will stare at my office door waiting for me to respond. These behavioral cues help me to understand that Miso isn’t just pressing random buttons but is looking to communicate when using them. I believe that Miso uses her button as a daily form of communication with us now, but I also watch her body language and energy to get the whole picture. Sometimes she uses her actual voice too!
Over time, I have come to believe that Miso does understand a handful of the words we share and that the buttons have become a way for us to communicate.
WHAT WORDS DOES SHE HAVE AS BUTTONS?
On her board she has:
By the door she has:
Next to the bed she has:
Airlift (dad’s idea which she now uses every night instead of the stairs to get into bed)
WHY DON’T YOU TEACH HER HIGHER LEVEL WORDS LIKE LOVE YOU, HAPPY, SAD?
I would love to teach her abstract words, but we are not there with her yet. She was introduced to her first button less than 6 months ago! I also like to take it pretty slow with her as I want the experience to be as enjoyable for her as it is for me. My priority has always been to introduce button words for her that would be useful to her in communicating her day to day needs and wants with me. We hope to get to the abstract words soon.
WHERE CAN I BUY THE BUTTONS?
We use the same buttons as @hunger4words. They are available on Amazon by Learning Resources. Link.
WHERE DO YOU BUY THE CORK BOARD?
Honestly, the cork board is something we had lying around. They were placemats we had ordered from Amazon a long time ago. I don’t recommend them. I use them because I needed a hard surface for the buttons as the carpeting underneath was muffling the sound. We will find a replacement soon as these are temporary for us.
ARE THERE OTHER OPTIONS?
Yes, I have seen some other options around, but the ones by Learning Resources are the only ones we have used.
This has been our journey so far and I am sure there is so much for us to still learn. I tried a lot of different things and stuck with the things that seemed to work. Every dog is different and what worked for Miso might not work for all other dogs out there and vice versa. As the practice spreads, I am excited to learn more from others who have attempted this and to read about what worked and did not work for them. I hope this article was able to provide some light on what has worked for us.
YOU CAN FOLLOW MORE OF MISO'S ADVENTURES ON HER INSTAGRAM
About the Blog:
I started this blog as a I way to share the knowledge I've accumulated as a fellow dog owner. As I continue to learn from others, I hope that I too can help by sharing my own personal experiences. If you've found value in my blog and would like to support Miso and I, please consider sharing our small business to other dog owners in your community. It would mean the world to us. Thank you for your readership.
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