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Kaili Smalley says it took 18 days to get her 8-year-old German shepherd to talk to her.
The New York University grad student was back home in Idaho, with time on her hands after her internship was canceled. In July she bought the cheapest recording devices with buttons that she could find with the intention of chatting with her dog, Gracie.
She tried rubbing treats and water on the buttons in an effort to teach Gracie to press them whenever she wanted either, but nothing worked. It wasn’t until a family reunion that Gracie saw another dog press the button and was hooked. Now she can’t stop talking.
“It’s boosted morale in my household,” Ms. Smalley, 27, says.
Pet lovers were captivated when speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger last year claimed to have taught her dog Stella how to communicate using augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC. This is often used to help people with speech and language issues communicate without talking by using their body or a device.
Thanks to an uptick in pandemic pet purchases and more free time at home, some owners have decided: It’s time to teach their pets how to talk.
Alexis Devine, 40, inspired many with her Sheepadoodle’s impressive communication skills. Ms. Devine, an artist in Tacoma, Wash., posted a TikTok video this summer showing her dog Bunny pressing buttons to say “Love you, Mom.” Ms. Devine now has 2.7 million followers, including other pet owners who wanted to give this a try.
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CleverPet, a startup based in San Diego, launched FluentPet this summer, a product intended to help pets express themselves using buttons. Owners can model a word or concept by saying it aloud, pressing the corresponding button and acting it out or directing the pet to the specified object. The company said it has sold thousands of kits, which cost $30 to $200, since June. Other companies make button devices, although most aren’t specifically targeted at pets.
The Hunger For Words Fan Experiments Facebook group, where pet owners following Ms. Hunger’s example can ask each other for advice, has doubled its membership to more than 2,300 since March, according to one of the page’s administrators.
“I understand that with new ideas, some people will be skeptical at first,” Ms. Hunger said in an email. “Research shows that dogs can understand words, and AAC gives dogs a chance to say the words they understand and hear every day.”
Stephanie Rocha, 51, began teaching her Border-Aussie, Casper, how to communicate in October. She started posting videos of Casper using the buttons. In one, posted this summer, an upset Casper pressed the buttons to say, “Eleanor! No! Help! Mad!”
“What do you need?” Ms. Rocha said. Her daughter Eleanor was upstairs, fixing a dresser.
Of the 24 labeled buttons arranged on mats, Casper pressed “Go! Golf cart!” Ms. Rocha says her daughter had promised Casper she would take him on a golf-cart ride in their Atlanta neighborhood, but decided to fix her dresser since it had started raining.
“Previously, I would have never thought that a dog would have that kind of thought process,” says Ms. Rocha, a photographer.
When Samantha Garretto told her partner, Brian Gosz, she was going to teach their new quarantine pup, Beans, how to communicate with buttons in July, he teased her. But after he noticed Beans hit the “outside” button before leaving their Washington, D.C., apartment for a break, Mr. Gosz got on board and shared the news with his skeptical family.
“I was like, ‘Look, Dad, I know you think you’re pretty cool, but I got my dog to tell me with words when it needs to go outside,’ ” says Mr. Gosz, 29. He now dreams about teaching Beans how to say “Touchdown!” whenever the Minnesota Vikings reach the end zone.
Dogs are capable of understanding this type of communication, but it isn’t a new concept, says Carlo Siracusa, a veterinarian specialist in animal behavior and associate professor of clinical animal behavior and welfare at the University of Pennsylvania. This training isn’t much different from teaching a dog to ring a bell when it wants to go outside, he says.
“People can do it, it’s fun, but I think it’s much more important from the dog welfare standpoint that we make an effort to understand the dog’s language,” he says.
He said there are some concepts that are difficult for dogs to grasp by pressing a button, so it might be easier for owners to just read their pets’ body language to understand them.
Karlijn Koning says it took her boyfriend, Pim, a while to overcome his doubts. The couple, who live in the Netherlands, began teaching their dog, Silke, AAC in March. What started at four buttons quadrupled in a matter of months. One day, the dog spotted him in the kitchen and pressed the buttons “Kijk! Pim! Spelen!” or “Look! Pim! Play!” in Dutch.
Silke had never said his name before. He was a lot more open to the project after that, says Ms. Koning, a 28-year-old caretaker of service dogs in training.
Ms. Koning started training her guinea pigs with the buttons, and she says they already know how to press the “snoepje” button to ask for a treat.
Kendra Baker, 32, started teaching her cat, Billi, AAC in May to keep herself from going stir crazy while staying home in Baltimore.
Billi’s first words were “food,” “pets” and “mad,” she says. The cat often uses the “mad” button when she’s not getting the affection she wants, like the time Dr. Baker kissed her boyfriend in front of her. Billi trotted to her button mat, pressed “Later! Mad! Pets!” and glared at them as she waited for her belly rub. Dr. Baker stopped to scratch the cat.
“Each time we get a new word, it’s exciting all over again,” she says.
“There is that healthy bit of skepticism,” Dr. Baker adds. “Did she just randomly choose those and it just happened to fit with the scenario we were seeing? Who really knows? But it was extremely entertaining for us.”
Terri Bruce, an author in Maine, has been teaching her two cats to communicate using AAC since March. It took three months for her 8-year-old cat, Bix, to start using four buttons consistently. In June, she started to combine words. Ms. Bruce, 46, tried to introduce two new buttons in July so Bix could say phrases like “Play + laser pointer.”
It was too confusing. Bix had a meltdown, laying on all the buttons, howling and hitting them over and over. Ms. Bruce removed the new buttons, but Bix sulked and stopped using any for a week.
“Like a human, she had to lick her wounds and pout for a little and pick herself up and start again,” Ms. Bruce says.
Not every pet feels the need to chat. Kate Cassidy, 40, introduced the buttons to her pup, Anya, in May, but the beagle shepherd has zero interest, even though she seems to understand how they work.
“Some dogs are just content being a dog. If they’re having their needs met, then they don’t need to communicate with us on our level,” she says.
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