Talking Cats: Will Soundboards Be The Future Of Cat Training?
What is at the heart of every inquiry I get at cat school? Communication.
"Why is my cat biting us?"
"Why is my cat screaming all the time?"
"I can't figure out what my cat wants! I want to understand what they need!"
Despite our love for our pets and the strong desire to meet their needs, we still don't have the technology to translate an animal's thoughts (or meows!) into our spoken word.
To bridge this radio silence between our pets, the use of a soundboard has become popular.
What is a soundboard?
A soundboard is a series of buttons that a pet can press to communicate what they want or how they're feeling. Speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger introduced the soundboard by demonstrating her training with her dog Stella. You can teach a pet to indicate their desire by selecting the button that says the word out loud, such as having a button that says "food" or "outside." They've even added more advanced concepts like "want" and emotions like "mad."
Understandably people are excited about this tool because deep down, we all want to have the best communication with our pets that we possibly can to help meet their needs and live fulfilled lives.
The biggest issue with the soundboard is when we teach pets broad, complicated concepts, especially emotions; you cannot guarantee your pet's comprehension. Although studies are in the works, to date, there is no scientific evidence that dogs (or cats) understand soundboards. Until research proves that button pressing isn't random, we must be careful what claims we make about our pet's intentional communication.
But that doesn't mean you can't get started on your button training. The key is to teach your cat to hit buttons with words, guaranteeing specific outcomes – something we've already done previously, for example, when we train a cat to ring a bell for a treat.
As a starting point, I recommend focusing on three simple skills (three buttons):
1) Treat time = When your cat presses this button, they get a treat
2) Outside = When your cat presses this button, put your cat's harness and leash and go outside
3) Play = playing with a toy.
If you don't take your cat outside, you can substitute it with a food puzzle toy or something else that your cat likes, for example, catnip.
Button 1: Treats Please
This skill is covered in Cat School by teaching a cat to ring a bell and get a treat after. If you taught your cat to ring a bell, you got this. You can use your sticky note method and transfer it onto the button, and you should be good to go. Click and reward your cat with a treat whenever they press the button. Congratulations, your cat can now let you know it's treat time.
Button 2: Outside
Have you ever seen a dog ring a bell to go outside? Well, cats can learn this skill too, and we can use a button to teach this. Place the button near the door to go outside. When your cat pushes the button, start the process of leashing up to go for a walk. It's helpful to place the button close to the outcome (going outside), so your cat can associate the button with the immediate action of going for a walk.
Button 3: Play
Place the button close to an area where you can quickly get a toy. When they push the button, bring out the toy within 2 - 3 seconds and play for a short period.
With all three skills, repetition is vital. Practice with your cat pushing the buttons over multiple sessions, so your cat associates the cue with the consequence after it. We want to make sure they can distinguish each button with the appropriate result.
Ensure you take the buttons away when they aren't available. If your cat pushes it and nothing happens, that's not going to bode well for your training; like clicker training, a button is a contract with your cat that, when pressed, the result is guaranteed. If we keep it simple, it will be easier to observe your cat's responses to see if they understand to use the buttons to communicate their desires.
Once your cat actively uses their buttons, you may want to consider bringing the buttons closer together to make it easier to exercise their choice. However, be careful of causing any confusion as the "meaning" of the buttons may become harder to distinguish when the buttons are side-by-side. Some ways of overcoming this challenge are making the buttons more distinct looking – you can put them on different objects or have shapes on top of the buttons as more apparent signals. Think about how your cat already has physical items that predict events; for example, when you bring out your cat's harness, they know that means walk time. Resting a button on your cat's equipment might help them understand its meaning. Always remember to adjust your training to set your cat up for success.
Button use is still in its early stages – it's a bit of a wild west right now, and both the teaching methodology and testing of an animal's comprehension of buttons remain to be clearly defined. Although they may look entertaining on social media posts, emotions like mad and love are anthropomorphic – human attributes to animals. Putting a value on these words takes away from our cat's already rich communicative abilities. For example, your cat's tail position can tell you A LOT more about their feelings than trying to teach them words that represent emotions.
If your goal is to improve your communication with your cat, take a thoughtful approach to the training and keep it simple with just a few buttons that provide clear and instant consequences.
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