So the good news is that I’ve been able to teach Rikki how to paw a button firmly enough to make it sound, instead of just dabbing lightly at it.
I used a variation of the method in this video, but (lacking the cups and cork mats she used), went with a series of glass dishes from my kitchen turned upside down. I’d been advised by a Discord member to use liquid treats for this, but I don’t have access to “Churos” or other commercial options, and after trying a few different homemade options, I finally gave up and just used solid treats.
The goal was to get Rikki to step up on a surface a couple of inches high, actually putting weight on his front paw(s) as he did so. I guided him by holding a treat just above and forward of his head. At first his instinct was to either reach up with a paw and yank my hand down or just gain the height by sitting up on his hind legs like a rabbit, but I pulled back and only clicked and gave him the treat when he stepped up on the ‘platform’. I found that initially I had to use a very large dish with a bottom about as wide as a hextile before he would step on rather than around it, and I had to move very slowly with switching to smaller dishes, and back up one size at the start of each session.
But by now he was familiar with how the clicker cue works, and bit by bit we got there, until finally I was able to remove the smallest glass dish and work directly with the buttons. Since he already understood that pressing a button until it made the noise was the magic action, the last stage went quickly. He hasn’t completely stopped gnawing at the buttons; sometimes he’ll start out by crouching over the tile and biting or rubbing his face on them, or even just lying down and body-pressing. But I do have him paw-press properly before I actually hand over the treat, and sometimes he does it that way on his own, so the button-gnawing is much reduced.
Alas, what he does not appear to understand is that the two different buttons have different sounds and result in different actions, because there are times that he presses the KITTYNIP button and then when I give him catnip he sniffs at it and then complains at me like “but where’s my treat?” I’m planning to introduce a third button — probably BIRD TOY because the feather teaser seems to be his favorite play option — to see if that makes a lightbulb go off, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.
Gracie has noticed all of this activity and has, in her slightly diffident, extremely delicate way, shown some interest in this treat business, so I’ve done a few sessions with her as well. I was able to start with a much smaller glass dish and move through the sizes more quickly than with Rikki, but then when it came to no dish and just the button, she stalled out and started stepping past it rather than onto it.
Also she swats at Rikki if he comes near the board while she’s there, which is no good, so I have to separate them. I’ve only worked with her once since I finished with Rikki — I’ve been busy and she’s not pushing hard for it the way Rikki did. I’ll get back to it eventually.
Tashi Words: New and Replaced
Covering the period between January 8 (when the wall board went up) and January 26:
TREAT and WHERE
Tashi had not only noticed that Rikki was asking for and getting TREATs several times a day, but had begun showing up at the refrigerator like “hey what about me” whenever he heard the button go off. It started to feel unfair that he didn’t have a TREAT button of his own (even though both PUZZLE and PRACTICE are ways for him to get treats), so on January twelfth I decided to add one. I hadn’t done it in the early days because I wasn’t eager for nonstop TREAT spamming (like we sometimes have with Rikki, ahem), but it turns out Tashi was pretty uninterested in the button when it went up, and since has used it only rarely — and not by itself, but as one of several food-related options, sort of like “hungry and/or bored, will take anything”. His favorite food-related button for months was KONG but these days it’s PUZZLE.
I also started a new game, one that I’m calling “find treat” — really just the most basic nose work. I go into the bedroom with a container of treats (usually tiny pieces of turkey hotdog, which have a strong ‘smoky’ scent) and shut the door while Tashi waits outside. Then I put the treat somewhere in the room, open up the door, and Tashi comes in and sniffs it out. The scenario allows me to model and reinforce a number of existing and future vocabulary words: GO, WAIT, TREAT, FIND, SNIFF, and WHERE.
In part because of this association, I added WHERE on the same day as TREAT. I’d been modeling “where?” verbally for a long, long time, often with regard to a toy, like “Where is ball?” But his responses to this have been erratic, so I was never sure how well he understood the word.
WHERE is only his third question button. Tashi sometimes uses WHAT and HMM? on his own to indicate he doesn’t understand something, but he hasn’t used WHERE at all. I’m just continuing to model, now with buttons as well as verbally, and hoping that eventually it will click. I’d really like to get him to understand how to properly answer questions, so I’m trying to model both questions and answers as well as rope Jak into some staged Q&A in Button Pidgin.
TOGETHER and ALONE
On Sunday the fourteenth I expanded ‘Australia’ from one tile to two, and added a second antonym pair, TOGETHER and ALONE.
I almost started with GOOD and BAD, but changed my mind at the last minute. I say “good” to him all the time as a generic sign of approval, but I intentionally do not call him “bad”, and I got Jak to stop doing so some months back. (For upsetting behavior, I use RUDE, which is paired with POLITE — it may seem like splitting hairs, but I believe the distinction between “bad dog” and “rude behavior” to be important for the human mindset.) So I’m not even sure Tashi is aware of “bad”.
Instead I decided to go with concepts I knew were important to him. There was zero doubt that he knew the word “alone”; I wasn’t positive about “together”, even though Jak and I had both modeled it a lot since November and I strongly suspected he understood it. The moment I put up ALONE and TOGETHER, though, he was excited — a happier reaction than I’ve gotten for any new button except CHEWIE — and he immediately started using TOGETHER in ways that showed he knew exactly what it meant.
Here’s a TOGETHER video from the first morning after I added the ALONE/TOGETHER pair:
NECK, BELLY, and TAIL
Since there turned out to be zero learning curve on ALONE and TOGETHER, I decided the next day to add back in the body part tiles that I’d added when he got the cone but hadn’t moved over with the board.
As I recounted before, the differences between his early use of the words had convinced me that he knew what all three of them meant, as he devolved into learned helplessness and spamming, they were one of the greatest sources of confusion. The body part tiles were on the ‘more accessible’ side of the floor board, he used them often, and almost never in ways I or Jak could understand. So I left them off until we had a couple of weeks of largely mutual comprehension with the wall board behind us.
Because yep, as soon as I put the body parts back up, they went into heavy rotation, and he’s still not using them in ways that are human-clear. I think some of this is indicative of a more embodied way of framing concepts. He’s become more likely to say BELLY and/or LICK when he’s hungry than he is to say FOOD or KONG. I am pretty sure that at least some of the uses of NECK are referring to ‘leash’, which is on the list but not yet a button — for example, OUTSIDE NECK to refer to a potty trip after dark. TAIL is the most confusing — I’ve wondered if it might be a synonym for HAPPY and/or EXCITED (because he thinks of wagging his tail) but he does use both HAPPY and EXCITED pretty often and I don’t have any strong clues supporting that idea.
As January 15 was a Monday, the day before Tashi’s weekly playdate with Chewie, I also went ahead and added TOMORROW to the board. I’d done a lot of verbal modeling with “tomorrow” over the past few months, and had recently started reduplicating “tomorrow” up to three times to mean that many days in the future.
Another development since we moved to the wall is that Tashi has really caught on that he can ask for and talk about his best dog buddy — and like I predicted, once he started he really hasn’t stopped. I responded to his first CHEWIE requests by setting up an extra playdate that week; he continued to mention Chewie at least once a day, so that soon turned into a second regular playdate. S0 now Chewie comes over on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and when Tashi talks about CHEWIE I tell him how many TOMORROWs until he next comes.
I’m not sure whether he’s precisely counting the number of TOMORROWs or fully mapping the reduplication schema onto number of days, but I am confident he understands a single TOMORROW, and I strongly suspect he at least gets that two-or-more TOMORROWs is farther away. He uses the button quite a bit on his own — I think sometimes he’s proposing things for TOMORROW and sometimes he’s asking about TOMORROW, and he very deliberately said TOMORROW TOMORROW once, with two clear presses, not a bobble. He’s gone from saying CHEWIE NOW to CHEWIE TOMORROW, which is some kind of progress, I guess? <laughing>
This really does make me want to teach him the numbers one through four, though. Maybe someday I’ll have a ‘numbers’ tile, with ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, MANY, and NONE. (Shades of Watership Down and hrair.)
YES and NO
Nothing else for a few days until on January twentieth, I re-added the YES and NO buttons … as much because I was missing being able to button-model negated verbs as anything. No significant delay in usage there either, and he’s used them a few times each. Predominantly he seems to use NO to mean he doesn’t like something that just happened or was said (which, fair, that’s probably the context in which he’s most often heard it). YES is a little less clear; he may be saying he does like something, or he may be adding it for extra emphasis, or both.
What he’s not doing, despite many opportunities, is using YES and NO to answer HMM? questions. As I said above under the WHERE section, I am trying to explicitly show him how questions and answers work, because getting him to reliably answer questions would be a huge step forward for both of us. Jak has theoretically agreed to help me with this but I think I’m going to have to schedule something regular at a specific time or it won’t ever happen.
I’ve also been intermittently working with hand choices to a similar end. The woman who wrote that linked article is on the AIC Discord servers, and she uses hand choices with her dog in all sorts of fascinating ways; it’s a great way to get clarity about the intention of button presses, or to allow choices away from the board.
Tashi completely understands concrete hand choices: I have one thing in one hand, and a different thing in the other hand, and he picks between them. But he does not understand abstract hand choices: the idea of verbally ‘labelling’ the hands to mean different things (like two different activities, or “more” vs “all-done”, or “yes” and “no”) and choosing the hand with the right label. He’ll nose-boop a hand, but he’s doing it at random, not because he’s understood that the word goes with the hand and he’s picking that word.
So, more work is needed there. I meant to start up with it again as soon as I added YES and NO back to the board, but I haven’t; been more tired than usual this past week, and there are just so many things needing my attention.
Below is my wall board plan as of January 25th (click for larger version). I’m no longer visually marking which future words I think Tashi already knows; the only distinction is between live words and planned words. Pastel tiles are ones I’ve purchased but not yet put up; six of the nine are waiting for me in Texas and will come back with Jak in early February along with additional cameras and some other supplies.
I’ve made a couple of minor positioning tweaks since the first iteration; the only one really worth mentioning is TIRED, which I moved up one slot so that it’s no longer right next to BORED. I’ve been feeling for months that Tashi had some strange idea of what TIRED meant that bore no resemblance to the English meaning, given how often he says TIRED when he’s definitely not, and the combos that seem nonsensical, like EXCITED TIRED, which (since EXCITED in our pidgin contains the idea of “energetic” as well as “anticipation”) should be nearly antonyms.
TIRED and BORED were next to each other in the floor plan also, and I am testing the theory that Tashi uses them interchangeably. My original recordings of BORED and TIRED had the same cadence and tone, so I rerecorded TIRED to make it more distinct. Since I made those two changes his usage of TIRED has dropped … but not ceased, and he used the EXCITED TIRED combo again once yesterday. Meanwhile I am making a point of modelling the meaning more as relates to Tashi’s physical state, rather than mine or Jak’s … despite the fact that our middle-aged asses are tired a lot more often.