Barney’s Buttons: Our Journey so Far

In Barney by Julie

Barney continues to amaze us every day and his understanding and use of his buttons is improving all of the time. This update summarises some of the progress he has been making, as well as includes some information about how we have taught him language, with tips and strategies for you to get started too.

Last week, my husband, Tony, took Barney and Luna for an early morning walk (as soon as they got up, which is a bit earlier than usual). The day after this, I got up with them and Barney said 'walk', I told him 'walk later' then he said 'outside'. When I opened the door for him he didn't go outside, instead he looked at me then told me 'outside park' to tell me it wasn’t the garden he wanted. I told Tony of Barney’s request and he did what was asked, got ready and went straight out for the morning walk.

Another morning this week, when Luna had woken us up earlier than usual, Barney requested ‘dinner’, immediately after he had been outside for the toilet. When I repeated this back to him he confirmed ‘dinner’ again, so that morning they had breakfast followed by another nap, before heading out for their walk. Every morning since then he presses ‘walk’ or ‘park’ within the first few minutes of being out of bed.

The buttons are giving Barney the ability to express choices and he is visibly thriving on this. He looks so happy when we respond to his communication attempts. We do still respond with ‘no’, ‘later’ or ‘all done’ when he repeatedly requests ‘carrot’ or ‘dinner’ and he understands this too.

Barney is also using his buttons to answer back! Sometimes when he is playing too boisterously with Luna we send him to his bed. Sometimes Barney then readily lies on his bed (usually when he’s actually quite tired) but sometimes he stamps on ‘where’ and looks at us, just like a toddler (or teenager?!) having a tantrum! This week he tried lots of words to delay his nap time time! See video below:

Barney is also using his buttons to communicate to us about Luna. One evening this week he pressed ‘Luna’ then he looked over to us. When we didn’t move he repeated this: ‘Luna’ (then looked at us). I couldn’t see Luna properly from where I was sitting as she was lying by the sofa (next to Barney’s buttons), so I went over to see what Barney wanted. Barney looked at Luna when I approached and she was lying there chewing on a piece of paper she had found without us noticing! Barney was telling us that Luna had something she shouldn’t have. This is fantastic communication and something that I wasn’t expecting would happen when we gave Barney the ability to talk.

Lots of people have been asking us how we started to teach Barney to talk and whether we will be doing it with Luna too. I would highly recommend you start by reading Christina Hunger’s book ‘How Stella Learned to Talk’ as that was a really important part of our journey. I’ve also summarised a few top tips below for getting started.

Before introducing any buttons, start observing your dog’s communication. What are they already trying to tell you e.g. pawing at the water bowl when it’s empty, scratching at the door, looking at their empty food bowl, or bringing a ball to play with you. These are all valid methods of communication and you can begin to model simple language in these situations. Single words are best to ensure that the dog understands. This can become a basis for which words you might start with. Taking the examples above, the obvious single words could be: water, outside, eat, play.

Like children, it’s important to model the words in the context they are happening. Every time we fill up their water bowls we say ‘water’ (whether Barney has requested more water or not). Every time we open the door to go outside we say ‘outside’ (even if it’s us that wants to go in the garden rather than the dogs). Every time we give them food we model ‘dinner’. We do this when we are putting the food in the bowl, when we give them the bowl, and when we take the bowl away we say ‘dinner all done’. We naturally started to say ‘dinner’ at meal times so have stuck with that word but it is important that you use the word you naturally gravitate too. This could also be ‘eat’ or ‘food’. As long as you are consistent with modelling the language it doesn’t matter. We use ‘dinner’ for all meal times (including ‘breakfast’). If you use ‘eat’ anyway, this is a really good choice as it’s a verb and as language develops the dog could combine ‘eat’ with other specific food words if they are provided.

Think carefully about the words that you are already using and have been modelling to your dog. Once you have chosen some words record them on the buttons and place them somewhere easily accessible (and easy for the humans to model too). We started with ‘water’ and ‘treat’. For ‘treat’ we rewarded Barney with a treat every time he pressed the button. I realise now that this might not have been the best way do this, as this is a very specific situation and is not part of natural every day communication. I would never suggest doing this with a child (i.e. rewarding them with an edible treat for saying a word!) so I quickly moved onto following strategies that are aligned with how we support children’s communication and waited patiently for progress to occur. We quickly realised that the ‘treat’ button wasn’t the kind of functional communication we wanted to give to Barney, so after reading Christina Hunger’s book, I thought more closely about the words we wanted to introduce. We then introduced a further 3 buttons and placed them in appropriate locations around the house:

  • ‘dinner’ (next to the food bowl)
  • ‘outside’ (next to the door)
  • ‘play’ (next to the toy box)

Now we have created a communication board so that all of Barney’s words are in one place (with the exception of water which remains next to the water bowl). This means that he is able to join words which he is now doing frequently. It’s useful to think about where you might place the buttons and try to keep them in one place, as like us, dogs learn where the buttons are and this makes communication easier, (just like how you know where the keys are on a qwerty keyboard without looking, or finding apps on your phone without thinking about it).

Be patient! Just like when we are supporting children with their spoken language, progress might be slow, and it is important to focus on the overall interaction. We were modelling words to Barney (with and without the buttons) for months before he started to use them consistently. We persevered and provided Barney with lots of learning opportunities and over time he understood that activating the buttons lead to a response from us – just like when we use verbal words to communicate.

Luna is not yet using the buttons as she’s still observing and listening to the language (and everything else that is going on) around her. The main difference for Luna is that there are already lots of words/buttons in the house and she’s not really known a time when they weren’t there. I model words verbally to Luna in a variety of contexts and I model these with the buttons that are most meaningful to her. She also observes when Barney uses them, and she is always interested when Barney does and she knows what many of them mean. If Barney presses ‘carrot’ or ‘dinner’ Luna is right there! Sometimes Luna accidentally activates a button with a back paw and wherever possible we respond as if it was intentional e.g. if she stands on ‘play’ we get the ball and say ‘play’ etc. This helps to reinforce the meaning and we look forward to seeing her develop these skills overtime.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear how you get on with your own dog if you are using buttons or thinking about introducing them. Also, if you have any questions about our experiences I’d be more than happy to answer them. I look forward to sharing for more of our story soon.