Teaching My Dog to Talk
Updated: Jun 30
“Not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say.” –Rosemary Crossley
As a speech-language pathologist (SLP), this is one of my favorite quotes. Many children I work with do not communicate with verbal speech. Just like everybody else, they have so much to share and say.
If a child isn't able to functionally communicate with verbal speech, I find and introduce an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) system. This is often a device containing 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. Pretty incredible, right?
At the same time as I was working predominantly with children who use AAC devices, my fiancé Jake and I got a puppy. We picked up our Craigslist Catahoula / Blue Heeler mix from a grocery store parking lot on a whim, completely unaware of the journey we were all beginning together. Our puppy Stella quickly inspired interesting questions: If dogs can understand words we say to them, shouldn’t they be able to say words to us? Can dogs use AAC to communicate with humans?
To understand why AAC works, we need to understand that every single person has two types of language abilities: receptive language and expressive language. Receptive language is our language understanding. We understand what different gestures, words, sentences, and questions mean. When someone nods his head, we understand that means “yes.” When someone says the word “dog” we understand they are talking about a furry companion animal that barks.
Expressive language is our language output - what we say. Expressive language is not just verbal speech; verbal speech is just one form of expressive language. Other common forms include gestures, sign language, written language, facial expressions. For example if you are in the middle of eating and someone asks you a question, you might answer by nodding your head “yes” or shaking your head “no.” You did not use verbal speech, but you expressed “yes” or “no” in a different way.
When a person cannot speak verbally, this means we must find a different method for him to functionally, independently use language. Remember, every single person has both receptive and expressive language regardless of his verbal speech abilities. Why shouldn’t the same be true for dogs?
Dogs bark, whine, growl, smile, jump for joy, and dramatically sigh. These are all forms of expressive communication. Even without verbal speech, dogs show they have so much to share and say to their owners. Now, what would happen if we gave dogs a way to access the words we say to them on a daily basis? This is where knowing the difference between expressive language and verbal speech is crucial. I know dogs cannot physically produce human verbal speech. But, if dogs have receptive language, they most certainly should have expressive language too. I decided to find out!
Jake and I started small. We programmed one recordable answer buzzer to say “outside.” We thought this button would be a good size for Stella to activate with her paw. Every time we said “outside” to Stella, we modeled use of the button by pushing it with our foot. Every time we took Stella outside we pushed “outside” before opening the door. After a few weeks of modeling, Stella showed us she was aware of what was happening. When I would ask “Outside? Stella, want to go outside?” she began looking down at the button, looking up at me, and barking. As an SLP, I knew this was a huge step in the right direction. She was demonstrating joint attention between the button and me, and understood that to go outside, something with the button had to occur first. Soon after this step, Stella said her first word, "outside" independently.
Stella continued showing great success with saying “outside.” She began saying it faster, with less wait time or cueing needed, and eventually in 100% of opportunities. I did not wait for Stella to perfect her use of “outside” before adding more words to her expressive vocabulary. We quickly programmed more buttons to say words we commonly say to Stella or words we thought she was trying to communicate to us. These included “eat, water, play, walk, no, come, help, bye, love you.” Every day I spent time using Stella’s buttons to talk with her and teach her words just as I would in speech therapy sessions with children. Instead of rewarding Stella with a treat for using a button, we responded to her communication by acknowledging her message and responding accordingly. Stella’s voice and opinions matter just as our own do.
If Jake and I were distracted, Stella began saying “play” repeatedly until we threw her toy or engaged in tug of war. Stella would walk to her water bowl, notice it was empty and say “water.” If we had finished dinner and didn’t mention going for a walk yet, Stella would say “walk” multiple times while staring at us. If her toy was stuck under the couch, she would say “help” and stand right where she needed Jake or I to look. When our friends were putting their jackets on or were standing by the door, she would say “bye” to them. Jake and I were simply amazed.
Stella’s language skills continued to progress and thrive in more ways than I could have imagined. When we traveled, we brought Stella’s buttons with us and set them up in the new location. This did not impact Stella’s language use one bit. Jake and I observed Stella hitting her buttons to see which one was which after we placed them in a new location. She also began using language for more functions and abstract concepts. Instead of always requesting from us, she began commenting. This first happened when I was watering my plants. Stella said “water” while watching me, even though her water dish was full. She protested by saying “no” if we told her something she didn’t want to do, and directed us to “come” when Stella wanted us to come outside with her or come see what she was doing in another room. Instead of barking and leaving us clueless as to why, Stella possessed the expressive language skills to tell us what she was thinking.
The most exciting, unexpected milestone was when Stella began combining words to make two-word phrases. Stella would say “no eat” or “eat no” if we took too long to feed her, “walk no” if we didn’t take her for a walk, “eat play” to request her toy filled with food, “help come” when she needed help in another room. One afternoon shortly after the Daylight Savings time change, Stella said, “eat” repeatedly at about 3:00 PM. When Jake and I did not feed her dinner this early she said, “love you no” and walked into the other room.
Stella continues to communicate with us on a daily basis. She uses fifteen words functionally and completely independently. Since Stella has learned every word we’ve made available to her, I’m absolutely certain she knows and could use so many more words.
The results we’ve seen with Stella should not be a surprise. Research shows an average dog understands approximately 165 words. One exemplary dog, Chaser the Border Collie, was even taught to understand 1000+ words and gestures! Cognitively and linguistically speaking, dogs have been compared to an average two-year old human. Stella using AAC to communicate is also not the first time an animal has been taught to use human language. After learning from Penny Patterson, Koko the famous gorilla used over 1000 words to communicate in American Sign Language. Koko combined words and demonstrated syntax levels similar to a young child.
Stella’s communication journey has been filled with excitement, research, laughter, and experimentation. I know Stella’s AAC days are only just beginning. I look forward to exploring other alternative access options for Stella to use language instead of filling our apartment floor with 100+ buttons!
Maybe when given access to AAC and the appropriate language intervention, dogs will be able to tell us what they’ve been thinking all this time. Stay tuned to learn more about Stella's device and why this therapy method works!
Christina Hunger, M.A., CCC-SLP