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Back to Basics

With my last update for context, here are the words added since December 8 and their results:


All the words I chose for the board in late November and early December were coming off a list I’d been keeping of possible vocabulary that I (and sometimes Jak) already said to Tashi often enough that there was a good chance he already understood their meanings; I wanted to see which ones he would have a use for. I put down HI and BYE-BYE late on December ninth; a day and a half later he got the neck cone and everything changed.

It’s hard to know how these would have fared under other circumstances, but as it stands they have elicited essentially zero interest. It’s possible that he hasn’t followed their meaning after all; it’s possible that these are simply not things he wants to say (certainly he has physical ways of saying ‘hi’; we’re still working on making those more polite). Or they could have been casualties of the whole cone-spawned regression, especially since they were in the back half of the board which he almost completely stopped using.


With the advent of the cone, we abruptly entered a period where I stopped all normal progress and prioritized only words that were salient to his current physical condition. We already had HURT and BITE, but I needed more. A two-tile section of body parts was already in the plan; now it got shunted up to the front of the queue. I’d been verbally modeling body parts whenever I could for months — mostly NECK and BELLY, which are his two favorite places for SKRITCHES. TAIL was not something I’d really talked about much prior to December ninth, but we were sure talking a lot about it now. So in the evening after we came home with the neck cone, on the eleventh, I added the new tiles and NECK, BELLY, and TAIL buttons.

There is one compelling reason that I believe he understood all three words, and that was because he pressed a whole lot of NECK and TAIL over that first few days, and comparatively little BELLY. That tracked with his situation, with an irritating and annoying “neck cone”, as we labeled it for him, and a tail which was obviously painful and probably itchy as it began to heal.

There wasn’t much we could do about NECK and TAIL complaints except talk to him sympathetically to let him know we understood. I tried to skritch under his neck cone and collar a lot, and when I had the time, I would take the cone off for a highly monitored cuddle (where proximity meant I could stop him before he could sneak in a tail bite).

Most of the time body parts were just single-word presses (or reduplication, like NECK NECK NECK), but he did say NECK HELP a couple of times. When he did say BELLY it was also solo; I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I asked about both skritches and food-related things. Body language suggested the latter, both times … although that really only means food was more interesting to him (in that moment or in general) than skritches, not that he had pressed BELLY with that intention.

The longer the neck cone situation persisted, the less sense he made in general, and the more BELLY caught up with the other two in frequency.


I didn’t add any other new buttons for almost a week, until December 16, when I added LICK. We’d been working all week on getting Tashi to understand that he mustn’t keep trying to bite and lick his tail. I tried hard to communicate a sense of causality as well as caution; I don’t know exactly how much got through. (Thinking about this just this minute makes me realize I should add MEANS to the potential vocabulary list, as that seems to be how I generally end up explaining causality in our pidgin. “Bite means alone,” for one example, and also “bite tail means neck cone” or “lick tail means more hurt”.)

We’d also started consciously saying “lick” for when he licks us, something that he does … a lot. My personal variety of Sensory Processing Disorder makes me somewhat hyposensitive internally (interoception, proprioception) but extremely hypersensitive externally (sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch). Anything slimy provokes a full-body shudder-revulsion reaction — I’ve hated and avoided lotion my entire life, for example. (And if you’re thinking hm, there are other activities where aversion to sliminess might be a problem … why yes, you’d be correct.) I’m lucky that, as dog saliva goes, Tashi’s is fairly dry; I can tolerate it for a while, but there needs to be a limit. While we were still in the midst of the verybad biting problem, I tried to suck it up and allow him to redirect biting to licking without repercussions, but now that we’ve got the biting mostly metaphorically licked, I’m working on setting some boundaries about how much I am literally licked.

He didn’t use LICK much for the first few days, but then it took off and he says it a lot now. It’s also broadly a synonym for ‘taste’ (or maybe even ‘eat’?), which can make it a bit confusing without additional context. I suspect there may be even more meanings to LICK for him, just as the act of licking a person can mean anything from “I like you / am happy with you” to “You’ve been sweating and taste salty.”


This was the final word I added while he was still in the cone, on December 17. I’d gone back and forth on whether to include ITCHY as a word the way I had HURT and SICK; on the one hand I could probably tell if he was itchy because … he was scratching? (I’d been saying “itchy” when I saw him scratching for some months, nevertheless.) But on the other hand, if he chose to mention his itchiness, that could be meaningful, especially if he said something like HELP ITCHY.

Again, this got moved up because of our assumption that his healing tail sore would be itching, causing him to want to bite it even more. I’d observed how acknowledging his emotions in our shared vocabulary visibly helped him feel understood (and therefore less frustrated or mad … doesn’t really help with ‘excited’); so I hoped that by saying HURT and ITCHY he would at least know that we understood, even if we couldn’t fix it.

He’s used it himself some, but not in contexts that make much sense to me, or demonstrate clear proof that he understands the word. Nevertheless I think it’s probable that he does understand, because it’s such a concrete concept, and it seems unlikely that a dog who clearly picked up on FRUSTRATED and EXCITED and BORED would not make the comparatively small leap to ITCHY. And again, we’ve been hampered for the last month by the cone and its results.


December 20 for this one, so technically I guess I added this the night before the cone came off. I’d been offering him ice cubes from the freezer occasionally, and verbally labelling them, for some weeks; I don’t remember anymore what exactly he said that caused me to wonder if he was trying to ask for an ice cube — I think it involved WATER BONE, or WATER KONG (which comes to him frozen). So I put down ICE-CUBE to see what he did with that.

My subsequent assessment, however, is that he was not trying to ask for anything in particular at the time, much less ice; we were pretty far down the regression slope by then and I think that was just another instance of “mash multiple nearby buttons for attention”. He likes ice cubes and will always take one happily, but it’s not something he particularly asks for very often.


This was another attempt at trying to understand press combos that made no sense to me. For a long time, OUTSIDE was the only button he had in the ‘place’ category. Then I added INSIDE, and not only did he seem to confuse them, using INSIDE when he meant OUTSIDE, but occasionally he used them together, which of course made no sense at all. So I jettisoned INSIDE, and later added CHAIR and then BED to the ‘places’ area.

Now, I am one thousand percent sure he understands CHAIR, and pretty darned sure he understands BED, based on his responses when we say them in various contexts. But productively, he keeps pressing all the places in combos — BED OUTSIDE, CHAIR OUTSIDE, CHAIR BED, BED CHAIR OUTSIDE, and so on. As the cone problems went on, he also started pressing CHAIR and BED a lot along with all the objects in the next tile over, which by that point — six and eight button strings, all adjacent — was obviously just part of the general cone-mediated deterioration.

But the place combos had been going on long before that, from the moment he had more than one place. It couldn’t really be explained by his not understanding the words, because I know he does.

I ran the mystery by folks on one of the Discords, and the best suggestion I got was that OUTSIDE BED and/or CHAIR might mean CAR. Which yes, does make perfect sense! In context, though, I thought it was extremely unlikely. Still, I decided to try it anyway, just in case. So on December 21, since we were going in the car to the vet (and hopefully get the okay to go cone-free), I took the opportunity to add and model CAR.

This … did not help, except that I proved that BED OUTSIDE and similar did not in fact mean ‘car’. He also used the CAR button at times that made zero sense — like after dark, when neither we nor our neighbor ever drive, and there were no cars moving within even a dog’s earshot for him to comment on. (Our house is behind a gate at the end of a long narrow alley, which itself spurs off of the dead end of a street. We have only one full-time neighbor; the other four houses near us are all vacation homes. Not a lot of vehicle movement most of the time, and none of us drive after dark.) He also didn’t use the CAR button to narratively comment when there was a car coming or going.

My best guess is that CAR use was all just part of the devolution into pressing flurries of convenient buttons for general attention. As far as the earlier BED-CHAIR-OUTSIDE combos go, I have a couple of vague theories. Janine, another button teacher, has mentioned that sometimes combos are more like a menu, a list of options for us to pick from. That seems to make sense with Tashi’s use of objects and sometimes verbs — sometimes he wants just one specific thing (used to be KONG; these days it’s often PUZZLE). Other times he throws out three or four different things or activities and seems perfectly happy to get any of them.

The hitch with considering OUTSIDE BED CHAIR as a menu of acceptable options is that he can go on his bed or our recliners on his own. But he could very well have meant that he wanted Jak or me to go one of those places with him. This would be clear if he’d used a name or PERSON as part of the combo, or even intrinsically interactive verbs like CUDDLE or PLAY. But that might be down just to laziness; on many of these occasions he would lie down next to the board and just reach over and touch buttons with his nose periodically, and either nouns or verbs would require getting up and walking over to completely different sections.

Second, it’s occurred to me that he might think of place words as actions. After all, for months the single word OUTSIDE was basically a request for us to go open the door (and ideally, come outside with him and play). To him, saying CHAIR might mean “go/come to the chair”. Which thought recently led me to decide to become rigorous about adding COME and GO to my use of any place word, and modelling them on the buttons.

So anyway, after that the cone came off and Tashi did not revert to his pre-cone button usage, but actually deteriorated farther, to the point of peeing indoors rather than ask for POTTY. Of course at that point I completely stopped adding new buttons. I also didn’t take anything away — I just froze the whole board for the next two and a half weeks, while we rolled back and worked on basics like asking to go OUTSIDE and POTTY. And over the next few days he did get better — no further indoor peeing, a noticeable uptick in comprehensible basic requests, even a little bit of return to using the other sections of the board.

But we still had some problems, most of them ones that had plagued us from the very beginning, which the cone-mediated regression only exacerbated. And that brings us up to this week, when I made the biggest — and I think the best! — change so far.

Here’s the board (and plan) as it stood from December 21 through January 7, with 20 tiles and 63 active buttons:



Published inNeurodivergencePets

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