OK-admit it. You reflexively started to softly sing “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” but substituted “AAC devices” for “Front Teeth” and now it’s stuck in your head. You also said, “What IS an AAC device even?”. Then you wondered who Donald Yetter Gardner is. Now you’re wondering how I know that you thought/did all this stuff and you’re also wondering if maybe I’m psychic. Yes, I am psychic. Tell no one. I’ll know if you do.
Psychic Powers aside, I was sitting here in the head office of The Department Of Monitoring The Shameless Anthropomorphization Of Pets In General And Dogs In Particular one day when an issue of Modern Dog magazine randomly appeared in my mailbox. It contained an article about Alexis Devine, a woman who trained her sheepadoodle, Bunny, to communicate using an array of record-and-play pushbuttons laid out on boards. Here is Bunny discussing her preference for the morning’s activities.
Bunny composes short phrases and also strings together existing words to signify new words that aren’t on her button-board. (Ed. Note: There may be grains of truth in the following statements.) So her seal plush toy is a “water hippo”, kissing is “sexy time hug”, dreams are “night talk sleep”. Wine is “happy Mommy juice”.
Before I go any farther, do not confuse Sheepadoodles with Shepadoodles. A Sheepadoodle is the love child of an English Sheepdog and a Poodle. Some people call it a Sheeppoo. A Shepadoodle is the love child of a German Shepherd and a Poodle. (Not the same Poodle that mated with the English Sheepdog.) I can’t decide if I prefer German Shepoodle or German Shpoodle. I feel like Dr. Seuss would vote for the Shpoodle. I also feel like a Shpoodle might be something good to eat. So this is still a moot point.
Anyway, back to Alexis Devine. To her credit, in the Modern Dog article, she mentioned that the first person to use record-and-play buttons to help a dog communicate is a Speech and Language Pathologist named Christina Hunger. One day shortly after Christina got her new puppy Stella, Christina realized that Stella was exhibiting all the same behaviors as a human toddler on the verge of beginning to talk. Subconsciously drawing on her deep pool of Speech and Language Pathology knowledge, Christina got her hands on some recordable buttons and set about teaching Stella to use them.
Stella is no slouch. She never looked back and she never shut up, either. She now has more than 45 buttons at her disposal. Christina wrote a fascinating book about this: How Stella Learned to Talk. Stella didn’t let any grass grow under her paws either. She has her own stenographer and is currently working on her autobiography entitled (what else?): Misunderstood.
Quite frankly, when I read that Modern Dog article, I was so excited to start training my dog, Sarge, to communicate in this fashion, that I just about wet the bed. I rushed downstairs, went to Christina Hunger’s site and ordered her book along with a set of four talk-button AACs.
Then I spent the next 24 hours lying on the floor by the front door, whining occasionally, wagging my coccyx (aka tailbone) feebly and waiting anxiously for the FedEx truck to arrive.
Here is Sarge, a couple of weeks after the truck arrived, with four buttons in his quiver: “Go outside”, “Love you”, “Belly Rub” and last but not least, “Eat”.
It takes time and patience to get your dog to the point where it will open the door for you into its inner life. Christina Hunger’s book is very helpful in that regard. Sarge is coming along, slow but sure. After being brushed and cuddled the other night, he lumbered over to his board and pushed “love you”. He uses “eat” pretty reliably and when he presses it six times in rapid fire after he’s finished, it’s a great way to teach him “all done”.
“Go outside” needs a bit of work and I think “belly rub” is a misfire, quite frankly. That damned dog is so spoiled: all his needs are anticipated. He pretty much doesn’t have to ask for anything, including belly rubs. I’ve even been pre-chewing his food for him.
There are a few things Sarge and I need to get to the bottom of when he becomes more eloquent. One of the first questions I want to ask him is: Why in Heaven’s name did you abruptly nibble off the white tuft at the tip of your tail that morning?
Like Alexis Devine, I am hopefully skeptical about this whole business. Maybe a lot of the utterances are random. If not, do we really want to know what our dogs think? Maybe there are some doors that shouldn’t be opened. That said, I would love to put Stella and Bunny , kitted out with their button arrays, in a room with a hidden camera, to see what happens:
Protracted preliminary sniffing between Stella and Bunny, followed by button pushing…
Stella: Love Bunny perm! Who do?
Bunny: Mommy do. Stella big ears. Nice Stella.
Stella: Bunny like Scrabble play?
Bunny: Not like. Make mess. Ate “Q” tile. Bad Bunny
Stella: Bunny TikTok show?
Bunny: Lots TikTok look Bunny
Stella: Bunny good. Q tile stupid
Bunny: How Misunderstood story coming?
Stella: Slow. Button block. Writer life bad.
Bunny licks Stella’s head.
Probably that scenario will never unfold. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, other questions remain unanswered…
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