I can’t believe it has already been four years since Stella started using her first words independently. We’ve come a long way from little Stella going to the bathroom next to her buttons, swatting at them and missing, and barking at her buttons until we pushed them for her! Now, 4 years and 50 words later, here are the top lessons I’ve learned from this experience:
The words Stella uses most frequently have stayed consistent over time.
Even with all of the new words and concepts Stella has learned and demonstrated proficiency of, the core of her vocabulary has remained the same. During periods of change, some new trends emerge, however they always supplement her typical patterns. For example, when I changed Stella’s setup from having buttons all over our apartment to having all of her buttons on one unified board, “help” became one of her most frequently used words temporarily as she was re-learning how to talk. When we lived close to the beach, Stella would say “beach” multiple times each day. When we moved to a house with a yard, Stella truly said “play outside” all day long.
But throughout all of these changes, the same ~15 words have continued making up ~80% of Stella’s utterances. This is actually really similar to our own patterns of speech. The average adult human knows between 25,000-30,000 different words. However, the same 200-300 words make up ~80% of what we say. Stella’s most frequently used words (in no particular order) are as follows: Outside, Play, Come, Eat, Bye, Love You, Want, Look, Stella, Bye, Water, All done, Bed, Yes, Where. She can communicate a lot of different thoughts by combining these words in different ways!
Stella learns and talks SO much more when her board is always nearby.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but I still can’t believe how much of a difference it makes when Stella has very easy access to her words. We used to live in a small apartment where Stella’s board was always within ten steps of her. She would say ~40 utterances per day, sometimes even reaching 50 or 60 different utterances on especially chatty days.
Now living in a house where Stella frequently has to travel to another room to talk, she uses her words about 10-15 times per day. She still talks consistently, but there are many instances where her board is in another room or even on a different floor. I’ve also noticed that it’s not just the quantity of phrases she’s saying or the times per day she talks that differ dramatically. When living in a smaller space, Stella gets so much more practice with her vocabulary, therefore leading her to create longer utterances and more unique phrases and sentences.
I saw this change firsthand recently when we stayed in a vacation rental. Within days of returning to a smaller living space, Stella began returning to her former communication patterns. She talked constantly. Her mean length of utterance, frequency of word use, and the variety of words she was using all increased. This leads me to believe that we have to make Stella’s board as easy for her to access as possible. When she’s talking less, that doesn’t mean she’s having fewer thoughts to share; it means it’s too difficult for her to share them with us.
The innate desire to communicate is universal.
Stella’s words are very important to her. No matter where we go, Stella always shows that she’s happier when we bring her board with us. Without fail, as soon as we unpack her buttons and place them down, she wags her tail, licks our faces, and often says love you, yes, or happy. At home, Stella lays next to her board and takes naps with her head resting on it. If we have to pick up her buttons to move them or fix something, Stella stands in the empty space on the floor where they used to be until we return them.
We all feel better when we know we can share what’s on our minds and be understood, Stella included! If Stella’s words aren’t immediately available to her, her non-verbal forms of communication (gestures, whines, barks) take over in full swing. Communication is essential.
Connecting with another species through a shared language is an extreme privilege.
Sometimes I still have to pinch myself when Stella and I share a short dialogue, she says “love you” to visiting friends, I witness a friend or family member’s dog use their words spontaneously, a dog sitter shares what Stella said to her, or Stella tells me exactly what she wants repeatedly without budging.
For ages, humanity has been asking what our dogs are thinking and has been wondering what would happen if dogs could talk. It feels like such a gift that we are beginning to bridge the gap between species. We don’t have all the answers yet, but I know we are much closer now than we ever have been before. The more I hear Stella talk, the more deeply I think about the similarities and differences between us, discarding outdated beliefs about animals’ limitations, and how we might all change many of our behaviors if we really knew what dogs and other animals were capable of. This whole experience can teach us all so much.
There is so much potential here.
The longer that it’s been since I first started teaching Stella to talk, the more this statement rings true: we as a society are just getting started. I truly believe there are still so many unanswered questions about all that dogs think about, understand, are attempting to communicate to us, or could say with the right tools and teaching strategies.
I cannot wait to reflect back on this time in 10 or 20 years from now and realize that we were all just getting started. I can’t wait for buttons to be commonplace in homes across the world. I can’t wait for the average American to know what AAC is and know that there are many different ways for both people and our pets to talk. I can’t wait for more animals who share environments with humans to have greater communication access. I can’t wait for it all!
Stella’s Story and buttons