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Can dogs talk by pressing buttons? What science says about the debate.

A new study has collected thousands of reports from the owners of “button” dogs, who believe their pets talk by tapping buttons with prerecorded words

A photo illustration of a black and white dog on a pink background with a cream speech bubble coming out of it's mouth.
(Washington Post illustration/Pexels)
8 min

Sascha Crasnow believes that Parker, her two-year-old Beagle mix, can “speak” to her by using her paw to tap buttons with prerecorded words on them.

The dog recently coined a new term for ambulance, after spotting one parked outside, by pressing the buttons “squeaker” and then “car,” she says. During a visit from Crasnow’s father, the dog asked his name by using three buttons: “what,” “word” and “human.”

They are known as “button dogs” for their perceived ability to communicate by pressing buttons identifiable by pictures, symbols or location corresponding to specific words. Pet parents record nouns, verbs and emotions, and believe the buttons enable their dogs — and in rare cases, cats — to ask questions, express such feelings as pain (“ouch”) or anger (“mad”) and indicate something they want (“treat,” “‘cookie” and “outside”).

Sascha Crasnow's dog Parker has name buttons for Sascha and herself. But when Crasnow's dad was visiting on April 12, 2022, she wanted to know his name, too. (Video: Sascha Crasnow)

The concept is growing in popularity. Pet owners can purchase buttons and soundboards from about $30 for a starter kit to $230 for a “They can talk” complete set. Button dog videos have become their own genre on social media. One of the hashtags used with videos of button dogs, #dogbuttons, had more than 102.8 million views on TikTok, as of Monday afternoon.

Button dogs are also the subject of debate, with animal behavior experts raising questions about what the dogs are really “saying” and whether the words mean the same thing to a dog as they do to us.

“We already understand what dogs are trying to tell us without the buttons, but when we use a human linguistic interface, we start ascribing too much to our joint understanding of these words,” said Amritha Mallikarjun, a postdoctoral fellow at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “If a dog hits the button ‘love,’ maybe what it means to the dog is: ‘when I hit this button, I get pets, or everyone says my name.’ ”

Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere, director of the Thinking Dog Center at Hunter College, believes “our dogs have been ‘talking’ to us this whole time, but we just haven’t been ‘listening,’” she said. “The short videos I see online seem to indicate that dogs are able to form associations between a button press and an outcome, but it’s really difficult to say if anything more is happening.”

Sascha Crasnow's dog Parker pressed the buttons for the words eye and help, which Crasnow modeled for Parker twice a day when she gave Parker her medicine. (Video: Sascha Crasnow)

A new study may provide answers

While some research has looked at the functionality of canine buttons, a large study underway at the University of California at San Diego is trying to determine whether the buttons can enable dogs to communicate meaningfully.

The research, created by Federico Rossano, the principal investigator, is being conducted in partnership with FluentPet, which produces and sells buttons and soundboards. The company is sharing data with Rossano’s lab and the University of California at San Diego, but is not funding the study, he said.

“We are not paying for the data, and they are not paying us to analyze the data,” Rossano said. “My lab collects additional data and runs behavioral experiments as well, completely independent of FluentPet.”

Human parents of an estimated 10,000 dogs from 47 countries initially registered and submitted basic data about their pets, Rossano said. A much smaller subset — fewer than a dozen now, but eventually several hundred — have cameras in their homes running 24/7 to capture the dogs’ button behavior.

There are about 1,600 dogs and 400 cats, whose data is currently being submitted, he said. “But since this is a longitudinal study, depending on the questions, we can use data from the more than 10,000 participants or just focus on the data we are collecting now,” Rossano added.

“For example, if we want to look at whether some temperament traits or breed are better at learning buttons, then we can look at all 10,000 subjects,” he said. "But if we want to see how quickly participants can learn a new button/concept or are willing to participate in an experiment, obviously the pool we can count now on is the 2,000 participants, not the 10,000.”

The scientists also plan to visit the dogs and run tests to establish if they are actually communicating or randomly pressing buttons. Results likely won’t be available before year’s end. The scientific papers outlining their evidence are either under review for publication, or in the process of being submitted.

“While there are clear individual differences among the dogs in the study, we have now compelling evidence that for several dogs in our study, the button presses are not random,” he said. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have evidence that this wasn’t random.”

Clive Wynne, founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, is not surprised that many button dog parents are already convinced.

“We love our dogs, and so we are prone to putting the richest possible interpretation on the things they do,” Wynne said. He believes only a small minority of dogs can use the buttons to communicate, which he regards as “impressive,” although dogs certainly can acquire vocabulary.

He cites “Chaser,” the border collie who knew about 1,200 words but did not use buttons to communicate. She had a “receptive” vocabulary — most words were the names of toys — and would bring them back on command, Wynne said.

Wynne recently met with Rossano to learn more about the research and said he was “reassured” it will provide answers to many unresolved questions. “The fact that he is not rushing is a good thing,” Wynne said. “Also, he’s not taking their [FluentPet’s] money. He takes data, but he’s not taking their money.”

Button dog owners are believers

Crasnow, the owner of Parker the beagle mix, says the reactions of a button dog are not the same as reacting to human cues — which is what dogs typically do — because Parker initiates the communication on her own.

“Dogs using words to communicate is a paradigm-shifting concept,” said Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist who taught her dog Stella to “speak” based on practices used in teaching language to babies and toddlers.

Hunger describes several episodes that she says show Stella combining words to form expressive sentences. When Hunger delayed taking Stella outside, for instance, she says the dog pressed the buttons, “mad” “look” “want” “play” “outside.”

Similarly, Joelle Andres, a special education administrator who divides her time between Levittown and Sleepy Hollow Lake, N.Y., said her terrier Bastian picked up the technique almost immediately, learning to press buttons that said “treat,” “outside” and “walk.”

“He would hit the ‘outside’ button and run to the door,” Andres said. “If he hit the ‘treat’ button, he would go to the kitchen where the treats are. With ‘walk,’ he would go downstairs where we keep the leash.”

Experts still aren’t convinced

Alexandra Horowitz, who directs the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, pointed out that dogs already “tell” us what they want, signaling when they want to go outside and tossing a ball when they want to play.

She thinks dogs can learn to use the buttons, but that doesn’t necessarily advance their current ways of communicating. The risk she said, is that focus on button communication “may distract us from the elaborate communications they already make.”

“My fascination would be if the medium enabled dogs to say something truly unsayable without the buttons,” Horowitz said. “But it’s not clear that dogs are trying to say things which they cannot.”

Clara Wilson, a postdoctoral researcher in the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed. “Dogs can accurately use symbols and buttons paired with objects and actions,” she said. “However, this is very different from an ability to use language in the same way that humans do.”

Since dogs primarily use body language to communicate — especially with other dogs — humans should learn to read dog body language, rather than ask them to learn ours, she said.

While experts say there still is much to learn, engaging with the buttons can be enriching for both humans and their pets — and fun.

“Regardless of what the science tells us, if it allows owners to interact and better understand their own dogs, I think this is great,” said Hunter College’s Byosiere. “So, button-push away.”

Teddy Amenabar contributed to this report.

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