Stella and the buttons

Three Strategies for Teaching Your Pet to Talk


8 minutes

by Grace Stevens

Your pet’s buttons are unwrapped, you’re full of excitement and fresh inspiration after scrolling pet communication videos online, and now the only thing left to do is get started, but how?

Using the three teaching strategies outlined in this article will give you the perfect foundation for teaching your pet to talk and launch you both on a new and exciting journey of communication. These strategies are drawn directly from the evidence-based practice of speech-language pathology and are applied to the unique context of pet communication.

For more advanced techniques and tips for teaching your pet to talk, check out Christina’s book How Stella Learned to Talk or get personalized guidance by booking a coaching session directly with Christina!

1. Aided Language Input: Puppy See, Puppy Do

What is it?

A key strategy for teaching communication is aided language input. Aided language input is simply modeling a word by pressing your pet’s button as you say that word. You teach your pet to say words by pairing the words you say with the use of your pet’s buttons.

Why does it work?

By modeling words frequently, your pet will have many more chances to learn the meaning of each word. This will dramatically speed up your pet’s learning curve and improve their understanding of how to use each button in the right situations.

An example is saying “You want water? Let’s get water.” Each time you say, “water,” you push your pet’s water button to demonstrate how they can use the button to say the same thing you are saying.

Imagine explaining to a young child how to tie their shoes. You provide detailed step-by-step directions as they sit in front of you, yet somehow when they grab the laces, they make a horrible knot. Your instinct would be to grab their shoe and show them how to tie the bow using their own shoe. This same teaching instinct is important in to be aware of when teaching button communication.

You need to consistently show your pet exactly what to do, in this case, push the button to say a particular word. By watching you model using the buttons, your pet will gather information about what a particular word means and learn how to say the word themselves using their buttons.

How to use Aided Language Input:

To incorporate this strategy with your own pet, challenge yourself to model as much as possible using your pet’s buttons.

Whenever you are speaking directly to your pet, model the available words on their buttons by using the buttons yourself. “Time to go outside (press button for outside).” Come inside and say, “All done outside (press the all done and outside buttons). “Do you want to eat? (press button for eat). Yes, you want to eat (press buttons for want and eat). “Here’s your food, time to eat (press button for eat).”

To take it up another notch and provide even more awesome language models, challenge yourself to model the words on your pet’s buttons even when you are not directly speaking to/about them e.g. “Hey Jake, are you ready to eat? (press the eat button).” “Ok kids, we’re all done playing (model all done and play).” There is no pressure for your pet to respond or imitate you, rest assured they are taking in all you are doing and are learning a little more each time.

Consider what buttons you currently have available for your pet and what times of day these words frequently come up. Make a goal to model the relevant words as much as possible during these times. Every time you model a word using your pet’s buttons, you are putting another deposit in the bank for your pet’s comprehension and ability to use the button themselves.

2. Focused Language Stimulation: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

What is it?

When teaching a pet to communicate, it can be helpful to choose one word to teach during a specific interaction. This is the foundation of focused language stimulation. Focused language stimulation means targeting one word during an interaction by providing frequent models of the word in a short amount of time.

Why does it work?

This focus can increase your pet’s comprehension and production of the word themselves. Having one word you are specifically targeting can also help you as the teacher to have a clear goal in mind. You know that the more often you can use your target word and model it for your pet during this teaching period, the better!

How to use Focused Language Stimulation:

To get started using focused language stimulation, choose a word to target. Your target should be a word that your pet has available on their buttons. You can choose a word your pet has shown interest in and used a few times successfully in the past to increase their usage. Or you can choose a word they haven’t used yet as a way to introduce the concept in a concentrated, power-packed way.

Once you have chosen your word, think about what kind of scenario will help you have as many opportunities to use your target word as possible. For example, if you are trying to target the word “eat”, choosing a mealtime makes much more sense than when you’re playing tug-of-war in the living room.

Now that you have your target word and a context that makes sense to use it, you can start to show your pet how this word can be used. It’s quite possible you’ll feel a little silly repeating the word so frequently, but know that this is where the magic happens.

An interaction targeting the word “play” might look something like this: “Harvey let’s play! (press play button and grabs tug toy). “Play, play, let’s play (press play button 3x and shake toy excitedly). You play a minute or two of tug-of-war then take a small break to say, “Play, Harvey loves to play (press the play 2x)” “Are you ready to play? (hold the toy out with an excited expression, and press the play button). Continue the interaction for as long as your pet is interested in continuing to play. When they appear to be ready for a break, you can say,” Wow that was fun playing (press play button). All done, play (press play button).

You can model a word dozens of times in a short period. Just imagine all those deposits into your pet’s learning bank! To engage your family, strike up a friendly competition to see who can model the most times using focused language stimulation for your chosen target word.

3. Increased Wait Time: Hurry up and Wait!

What is it?

This strategy is deceptively simple, but can be a real challenge to practice! Increasing wait time means allowing a longer time for your pet to respond during interactions.

Why does it work?

Consider how quickly we typically respond to others in the flow of conversation; we go back and forth within seconds. Since our pets don’t frequently respond to us verbally, we often move even faster than typical conversations since we aren’t used to waiting for a reply.

Imagine you’re talking with someone in a language you are newly learning, everything slows down. You speak slower and take a beat (or two or three) to comprehend the other person before trying to respond. Your pet is also learning a new language and method of communication. Increasing wait time can help your pet learn to talk by allowing them the time they need to comprehend and respond. It is surprising what our pets can show us they know when we give them them a chance to respond.

How to implement increased wait time:

Think about your current interactions with your pet. How quickly are you speaking to them? When you ask them a question or tell them about what is happening, how quickly do you continue talking? Is there space for your pet to respond?

If you aren’t pausing for 10-15 seconds after asking a question, it’s time to increase that wait time! Start by challenging yourself to take a 15 second pause after each statement or question as you talk to your pet. Yes, 15 seconds can feel so long, so be patient with yourself! (No cheating!) Count slowly in your head before moving on. For example, “Do you want to go outside? (press the outside button). Now pause, count slowly to 15 in your head while looking expectantly at your pet.

Observe patiently to see if they look towards the button, move towards it, or even go to press it themselves. You can adjust the amount of time you are waiting for your pet to respond based on the situation, but challenge yourself to wait longer than you think. Some of the best communication moments come at the end of what feels like an eternity of expectant waiting.

Putting it all together:

All three of these strategies can be employed daily as you teach your pet to communicate. You will also find they make an exceptional team when used together. The more you practice the more these strategies will flow together during your time with your pet. Aided language stimulation (modeling the word on your pet’s buttons) while providing focused language stimulation (repeating your target word) with increased wait time (allowing a longer time for your pet to respond or imitate)  is the perfect recipe for delicious communication learning.

Need more ideas for activities to jump start your pet’s communication? Check out our Hunger for Words Talking Pet Product Line! Each product has a guide written by Christina with step-by-step instructions and activities to try at home with your pet.

Happy Teaching and Happy Talking!

More AAC Details and Buttons

How Stella Learned to Talk

Talking Pet Starter Set