Motivating Your Learner To Use Buttons

To encourage button use, find out what motivates your learner. 

Motivating your learner refers to tapping into, creating or capitalizing on their eagerness to engage in an activity.

A learner who is motivated will be more likely to participate in an activity and learn. In the early stages, button presses may be requests for something, and your learner will learn that pressing the button can help them express that desire.

Tips to remember:

  • Common motivators include: physical affection, play, food, and walks/outside access
  • What motivates your learner can change depending on factors like hunger, exercise, mental stimulation, and quality time
  • Learners have personal preferences, moods, and can change their minds
  • Novelty can boost motivation, maintain it by rotating motivators every few weeks
  • Every learner is different, so be open-minded and willing to explore different motivators to see what works best
  • Be creative and have fun!

Popular motivators for learners are:

  1. Physical affection
  2. Play
  3. Food
  4. Walks or access to the outdoor

  1. Physical Affection
  • Observe your learner's responses when you initiate physical contact to see what kind of physical affection they prefer
  • Physical affection can include chin scratches, cuddles, belly rubs, and more
  • Be mindful of areas that your learner might not like to be touched, such as the head, face, legs/feet, tail, and belly (especially for cats)
  • Never force physical affection on your learner
  • Pay attention to their mood and environment, as they might have different preferences in different situations
  • Always respect your learner's boundaries and never engage in physical affection that they dislike


Signs they like it:

  • Leaning into you, moving closer, or bumping your hand to indicate they want more
  • A relaxed posture and “happy face” expression (relaxed eyes, ears, and mouth).
  • Purring or leg thumping


    FluentPet signs they don't like


    Signs they don’t like it:
    • Moving away immediately when experiencing this type or location of touch
    • Avoiding your hand if you go to reach for them again
    • Tensing up and other stress behaviors (e.g., looking away from you, yawning, beginning to pant, etc.)

    2. Play 

    • Experiment with different types of toys and games to find the most engaging ones for your learner
    • Different learners have different play preferences (fetch vs. tug, solo play with a mouse toy, etc.)
    • Factors such as texture, shape, hardness, sounds, comfort in mouth, and more can affect your learner’s preferences
    • Dogs tend to prefer toys with a bit of give to flex their jaws on
    • Cats tend to enjoy toys they can bat around or hug and kick

    3. Food

    Watch out for Food Frenzy! 

    • Food can be one of the most powerful motivators, but it isn’t always the best place to start for some learners.
    • For overly food-motivated learners, starting with TREAT can be counterproductive.
    • Rather than learning that buttons are for communication, they might fixate on TREAT and believe buttons are just magical food dispensers.

    If food is appropriately motivating for your learner, here are some tips:

    • Offer different types of treats to find what motivates your learner the most
    • Remember that different learners have different food preferences and that they can change
    • Consider serving treats in new ways (e.g. hiding in a toy) to keep things exciting and fresh
    • Cut treats into small pieces. The smaller the pieces, the more repetitions of button presses you can do
    • Not all food is equally motivating. Some learners will work for their regular kibble or half a baby carrot while others require bits of cooked chicken or steak. Find the sweet spot where they want to learn but don’t become frantic about getting a treat

    Safety Alert! Never feed your learner anything from the allium family (garlic, onions, chives, leeks, scallions, shallots), macadamia nuts, poultry bones, chocolate, grapes (or raisins), and check ingredient lists to avoid xylitol, BHA or BHT. Many dogs and cats are lactose-intolerant, so take it easy with dairy products too.

    How to Pick Motivators for Button Teaching

    • Finding the "sweet spot" between "Reasonably Motivating" and "Super Motivating" buttons is key to successful teaching
    • Consider avoiding buttons that are "Too Motivating" for learners who struggle with impulse control or self-regulation
    • Introduce "Super Motivating" buttons after the learner has learned the basics and ALL DONE/LATER concepts have been introduced.




    FluentPet too motivatingToo Motivating:

    They may:

    • lose control of themselves and appear clumsy or wild
    • struggle to perform basic behaviors such as “sit”
    • frantically offer known behaviors trying to get more
    • be so focused on the motivator they can’t think straight: “They can’t hear you”
    • be reacting more than thinking (all output, no input)

    Not necessarily the best motivator for starting button teaching.



    FluentPet very motivating**Super Motivating:

    They may:

    • be willing to do anything for this motivator, even things they dislike.
    • show reduced bodily control or spatial awareness and might bump into things.
    • be unwilling to quit even when the motivator is done/gone/put away
    • dance along the boundary of overarousal but still be able to function/think

    They’re extremely focused on the motivator but not necessarily on learning. A powerful motivator for button teaching but be ready and willing to respond and model a lot!

    FluentPet very motivating


    *Very Motivating:

    • They’re willing to do just about anything for this motivator
    • They’re happy to try new things and remain focused
    • They’re attentive and listening when this motivator is available.

    Often the best motivators for starting button teaching!

    FluentPet reasonably motivating



    *Reasonably Motivating:

    • They’re happy to work for and do as asked for this motivator
    • They enjoy learning new things or engaging with you with it
    • They may still be distracted by what’s happening around them and could be slower to respond.

    A good motivator for button teaching.

    FluentPet somewhat motivating




    Somewhat Motivating:

    • They’re willing to do as asked for this motivator, as long as it doesn’t take too much effort or last too long.
    • They’re likely to lose attention quickly
    • They’re unfocused, relaxed, or “chillin”

    Not a great motivator for starting button teaching.




    FluentPet not motivating



    Not Motivating:

    • They’ll accept or interact with the motivator but wouldn’t necessarily do anything for it
    • They may not even be interested in it at all

    Not even motivating…

    Some learners don’t have anything that is “Too Motivating” while others are over excited by everything. Unsure if something is “Too Motivating” for your learner? If you have to ask then it’s probably only “Super Motivating.” Because trust us, you’ll know when you see it. 


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    Jump To Next Lesson

    Button Teaching Guide

    Intro to Button Teaching

    Preparing Your Learner for Buttons

    Learning to Read Your Learner

    Motivating Your Learner


    Choosing the Right Starting Buttons

    Soundboard Setup Guide

    Setting Up Your First Button

    Planning Your Soundboard

    Adding New Buttons

    Let’s Get Them Pressing

    Early Signs of Progress