Bunny, a young sheepadoodle dog, has gained popularity on TikTok for her ability to talk with her owner. No, she hasn’t gained the ability to actually say words; instead, she uses buttons that say words! These buttons are augmentative and alternative communication devices, tools often used by folks with verbal speech deficits. There are plenty of different AAC types that can be grouped in three ways: unaided, non-electronic, and electronic.
Bunny isn’t the only dog to use this system to communicate with their owner; in fact, she even isn’t the first! Christina Hunger is a speech pathologist from San Diego who taught her dog, Stella, to use AAC with similar buttons; over two years, Stella learned 40 different words! It took some time but nowadays, Stella’s even able to use the buttons for complex communication and will tap a few buttons in a row. Hunger has documented her life and training with Stella at the site ‘Hunger for Words’.
It’s not unusual for dogs to know some words; scientists figure that, on average, our canine friends have the same mental abilities as a two-year-old human and can learn 165 words! The smartest dogs, like Border Collies, German Shepherds, and Poodles, can even learn 250 words.
But words and AAC aren’t the only way dogs communicate with us. While they can understand some of what we’re saying, our tone and volume, body language, and gestures also play an important role! Have you ever seen videos of people mismatching tone with the content of what they’re saying? Dogs have a much better chance of understanding us if we use words they know (i.e. walk, treat) with what some call “dog voice”.
Communication between dogs and humans goes two ways and if you know what to look for, you can understand what your dog is trying to say without AAC tools! Body language is a huge part of a dog’s signals to humans and other dogs. Calming signals are important for dogs, as the survival of a pack can rely on the harmony between members and avoiding fights can help. Avoiding direct eye contact, slowly walking or freezing, and yawning are all ways that dogs try to appease an angry human or another dog. In fact, when you get mad at your dog and they seem guilty, they’re actually trying to appease you or deflect the stress and uncertainty of a situation.
And dogs aren’t the only ones to use AAC devices to communicate with their humans. While cats generally talk with us using body language (like their ears and tails), they do know 25-35 words and will use a variety of vocalizations! Their intelligence is different than dogs so comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. But cats are incredibly intelligent and have a great memory.
Steve, an 11-year-old cat in NYC, has used AAC buttons to talk with his human and asks for cuddles, treats, and to go outside. While he knows and uses fewer words than dogs like Bunny, Steve does use several. And the other cats in his house don’t use the buttons, they seem to know what each one means and will come running for whatever Steve asked for!
Talking with your pet is exciting but it’s less about your pet actually understanding exactly what your saying and more about ‘associative concept learning’, as Kristiina Wilson (Steve’s owner) says. Repetitive and consistent use of the buttons is the best way to make sure your pet understands and uses them! If you’d like to learn more about using AAC with your pets, the sites ‘Hunger for Words’ and ‘They Can Talk’ are two great resources!
If you’ve tried AAC devices with your pet or are starting the journey, let me know in the comments!