Stella and the buttons

What is AAC?


6 minutes

by Grace Stevens

While Stella’s form of communication using buttons is novel within the dog world, it stems from a much larger and exciting world of AAC (Augmentative Alternative Communication). AAC for humans was a deep passion for the Hunger for Words team long before Stella came on the scene.

In fact, Christina specialized in this area of speech-language pathology while working with human children at the time she brought Stella home as a tiny puppy. These professional experiences inspired Christina to create a form of AAC for Stella, breaking the barrier between human and canine communication for the first time.

What is AAC? We all use it (yes, even you!)

AAC is a term for anything that people (and now animals!) use to communicate besides verbal speech. To break it down further: augmentative refers to methods that add to someone’s spoken speech and alternative refers to methods and strategies used in place of spoken speech. 

We all use AAC everyday to make our messages heard, often without knowing it. Examples include texting a friend to find out what time you’re meeting at the restaurant, waving hello, spreading your hands wide to indicate what size piece of cake you would like, and responding to a roommate’s story about bad traffic on the way home with a grimace. Writing, gesturing, and facial expressions are all forms of AAC.

Some people who struggle with speech and language skills use AAC as a tool to communicate throughout their lives, or only for a short time when needed. Accidents, illness, neurodivergence, developmental differences, physical disability, and intellectual disability can all contribute to a person’s desire or need to use AAC. From a 3-year-old Autistic boy who hasn’t spoken a word yet, to a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, to a 70-year-old professor recovering from a stroke, AAC helps people of all ages communicate to their fullest potential.

Speaking of potential, dogs have strong expressive language skills that allow them to communicate all kinds of things, even though they cannot verbally speak. And while we may be able to guess what our dog’s gestures, barks, and cute head tilts may mean, when we teach them to communicate using AAC, we give dogs the ability to clarify and share more of their thoughts, wants, and needs than they ever could with only non-verbal communication. That is the tremendous power of AAC!

“Even though she uses words to talk to us, Stella still acts like a dog and communicates like a dog.  The only difference is, she has one more tool to express herself.”

– Christina Hunger, How Stella Learned to Talk

High-Tech, Low-Tech, & No-Tech Tools: Plenty of Options

AAC is a broad spectrum of tools that can be “high-tech,” and “low-tech,” or “no-tech.”

High-Tech Devices

High-tech AAC includes using a computer or tablet device with a communication app or program. These tools are typically referred to as Speech Generating Devices (SGDs). 

Stephen Hawking is a familiar example of a high-tech AAC user. He used a computerized device which he controlled via eye movements to communicate in his daily life as well as give presentations in front of huge audiences. Hawking’s story demonstrates clearly how verbal speech can mismatch expressive language skills. Even though Hawking was not able to use verbal speech due to his ALS, his expressive language was incredibly strong including ideas and concepts far beyond the average person. AAC was the tool that enabled him to share his award-winning theories in physics and cosmology with the world.

Low Tech & No Tech

Low-tech AAC devices can include drawing, writing, and pointing to pictures. For example, if you lost your voice and wrote down a message to your caretaker, or drew a frowny face to express that you weren’t feeling well, you used a form of low-tech AAC to communicate.

In human language development, verbal speech skills develop more slowly than language skills. Babies start using “no-tech” forms of AAC, like gestures, before they ever speak their first word. 

An infant who points to the snack cupboard when they’re hungry, waves goodbye to their grandparent, or raises their arms up high to ask their dad to pick them up is communicating with a form of AAC. 

Another AAC user you may be familiar with is Koko the Gorilla, a gorilla who learned to use over 2,000 signs taken from American Sign Language. Koko used a form of AAC, sign language, to communicate with the humans close to her. Her story shows the huge potential for AAC to create and deepen pathways of communication, understanding, and relationship between humans and animals. 

Breaking Barriers with Buttons

Although there have been previous forays into the world of using AAC to facilitate interspecies communication (e.g. Koko the Gorilla), Stella’s use of recordable buttons to communicate is opening a whole new avenue of exploration. Because dogs’ anatomy does not allow for spoken language, recordable buttons serve as an alternative method of communication and are an awesome form of AAC for a wide variety of animals. 

Because of Christina’s work, for the first time in history humans are able to share a language with their canine companions and dogs have a way to say the words they understand. Stella shows us everyday how she can make her voice heard. For example, recently when Christina called Stella by saying, “Stella, come.” Stella responded with sass, “Come, no.” Stella also asks questions about the world. When the family was home sick for multiple days, Stella started to wonder why they were inside so much and said, “Inside, what?” and then shared her desire to get out by saying, “Bye, good.” Stella and so many other pets are building relationships and sharing love by saying, “Love you,” asking to “play,” and letting their families know when they are “happy,” “sad,” or “mad,” every single day. 

How to Learn More

This discussion of AAC and its powerful potential to open new doors of communication for people or pets you know may leave you with questions about how to learn more. If you’re curious about the possibilities of using AAC with your own pet, check out our shop where you can find recordable and pre-recorded buttons to get started. The button sets come with robust guides written by Christina to teach you the foundational concepts needed to teach your own pet. Christina’s book, How Stella Learned to Talk, goes even deeper with stories of AAC use among humans and animals and plenty of practical how-to points you can apply to your own unique situation.

If you are looking to learn more about AAC use for humans, you can start at the American Speech Language and Hearing Association’s website for more background info and use their Profind tool to seek out a licensed Speech Language pathologist near you to get started. 

Happy communicating to all!

More AAC Details and Buttons

Coaching from Christina

Talking Pet Starter Set