Thoughts of a Dog Therapist – Talking Mats For Dogs

If you’ve spent any time on social media in the last year then you’ve probably seen the video’s going around of dogs using talking buttons or mats to communicate that they want certain things to their parents.

I have now been asked several times what I think of them and whether I think the dog is actually communicating so here are my personal views on it.

First of all I want to say that I love the video’s because they show how quickly a dog can learn and how easily they can switch our teachings around to control us, but as an animal communicator and canine therapist I can honestly say that they’re not as amazing as they seem.

Let’s look at the stages that dogs and their parents go through in order to use these devices.

1. The dogs person has to teach them to touch the buttons or mat so that it makes a noise. This means rewarding the dog every time they press a button, either with food, fuss or verbal praise. So of course the dog is going to touch them because this action gets them something.

2. The dogs person then has to teach them to differentiate between the words. So when they press the food button they will get a food reward, when they press the cuddle button they will get a fuss and so on. So they’ll soon start to realise that different sounds will get them different things. Even if the words are all said in the same tone they’ll appear different to the dog because of the way they sound when they’re spoken.

3. Then they have to be taught to create a sentence rather than just pressing one word. Again this means that we are teaching them the sequences that will get them rewarded.

As you can see this isn’t about what the dog actually wants at all, it’s all about what we are teaching them to do and the rewards that we are giving to get them to do it. If a dog is food orientated then they will go for the sequence that gets food. If they love playing with a ball then they will choose the sequence that makes you throw a ball and from what I’ve seen in the video’s, once the dog has learnt these things the parents are then in fact controlled by the dog.

These people have the belief that the dog is actually communicating and asking them for something and therefore does everything that the buttons ask, without realising that the dog is just repeating actions that they have taught them in order to get the reward that they want. Bella does the same thing to me all of the time, but I recognise that she’s doing it.

I taught her to sit down and give me her paw to receive a reward, now if she wants something she does exactly that but she uses it for everything. I taught her to do it for a food reward and she now does it whenever she wants anything, whether that be a fuss, food, or to go out in the garden. If I taught her to do an individual action for each of these things she would soon behave in the way I showed her for each and seemingly be able to communicate her needs to me.

The mats and buttons are purely training materials, the same as an agility trainer would use a toy to train a dog to do the various obstacles on an agility course.

The thing that really makes me laugh though is the fact that humans are so desperate to teach their dogs to communicate with them but dogs can naturally do this anyway, people have just blocked out the ability to hear them. I telepathically communicate with my dogs and those of my clients daily.

We share thoughts, emotions, images, physical sensations, tastes, smells and knowing, and at any point in the day I can find out what any of them want or need or share with them what I want or need.

Maybe instead of teaching a dog to use gadgets to ask for things that we as people see as being important, we should all relearn the techniques needed to listen to our dogs properly and allow them to tell us what they really want us to know.