“Not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say.” –Rosemary Crossley
What is Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)?
The AAC system is used by children and adults who do not communicate with verbal speech, and instead communicate through non-verbal means (sometimes with the use of assistive devices). Assistive devices can take many forms, and the system is usually taught by professional speech-language pathologists (SLP). For children, a commonly used device contains thousands of icons, each representing a different word. When the child presses an icon, the device says that word out loud. AAC allows the child to say words, form sentences, and experience the power of language.
AAC for dogs:
AAC methodology for dogs was pioneered and developed by Christina Hunger (website, instagram), who is a speech-language pathologist (SLP) working with children. When she got her dog Stella, she saw the potential in dogs to use a similar system to communicate with us humans. Stella uses a number of custom recorded buttons on a board, and combines different words to form sentences.
What you need:
- Recordable buttons, like this one by Learning Resources
- Patience and consistency!
- Determine what words to teach: Use Christine Hunger’s vocabulary chart to figure out what words to teach, see her “Example” one first to understand how to use it. Then, use the “Blank Copy” for your dog. I personally added two columns to the right of her chart, one for “frequency of use” and one for “reward immediacy”. I prioritized teaching words that were both high in “frequency of use” and high in “reward immediacy”. For example: “Eat” or “Apple” have a high reward immediacy (i.e., reward is positive and easy to understand). Another example: “Eat” and “Potty time” have a high frequency of use (i.e., multiple times daily). Begin by choosing one word, ideally scoring high in both, and graduate to more once they have grasped the concept of pressing the button for the reward. We began with one word, then added 2-3 at a time after Lion learned how to use the button.
- Talk to your dog A LOT: As soon as you determine which words to teach your dog, make sure you talk to your dog a lot using those words in the desired context. If there aren’t opportunities to use some words at least a few times a day, create opportunities to say those words! You may even repeat the same word many times. For example: If you are teaching “eat”, you might say… “Lion, do you want to eat? Let’s go eat! Eat eat eat! (serve food) Lion eat!” This can be done in parallel with the next step (teaching them to use the buttons), and should be done as soon as possible and as often as possible to give them exposure to the important words.
- Teach them to use the buttons: Pressing a button is not a natural motion for a dog! Be patient as you show your dog how to use it. To start, you might create positive association with the button by serving treats on it. Then, you might reward the dog anytime he/she interacts with the button (i.e., looking, approaching, touching with nose). If you do clicker training, this is a great opportunity to mark those interactions. Eventually, you want to train your dog to use the paw to touch the button, and press down on it until it makes a sound. To encourage this, you may hold the button on your open palms and ask for “paw”/”shake”/”hand”.
- Modeling: After you expose them to buttons, make sure you are “modeling” the use frequently. Each time you say the word that has a corresponding button, make sure you are pressing the button at or around the same time. For example: “Does Lion want to eat?” (press “Eat” button). “Eat eat eat?” (press “Eat button”). Repetition and consistency is key! For humans, a typically developing child (communicates verbally) gets exposed to spoken language for approximately 4,370 waking hours before they begin to speak at around 18 months. We need to show our dogs how to use the buttons, and that we in fact use the buttons frequently, before we can expect them to use it themselves.
Must reads before teaching your dog AAC:
- Your Dog is Ready to Talk by Christina Hunger: This is a great guide to understand why your dog is more ready to speak than you think! https://www.hungerforwords.com/post/your-dog-is-ready-to-talk
- Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Getting Started with AAC by SLPCarrie: This article is meant for teaching human children AAC, but highlights critical AAC concepts that serve as great foundation for anyone interested in teaching it to their dogs. https://www.speechandlanguagekids.com/teach-your-child-to-use-an-aac-device/
Videos of our pup Lion learning to speak