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I am so, so, so behind on logging button progress, aaaaaa. Life is extremely full and not letting up soon, as we are taking a trip in April (with dog!) that requires a lot of advance planning. And then as soon as I come back, it’s Start Up The Garden Again, this time building raised beds. Lots of work ahead.

But before I get to new words, I want to 1) note a significant insight about Tashi’s use of body part words, and 2) give a related medical report. Other button teachers have noted frequent similarities between pet learners in different households who have never met or communicated, suggesting some common experiential baselines, so this insight might be useful for other people attempting to decipher their dog’s word usage.

Body Part Buttons

As noted previously, I gave Tashi NECK, BELLY, and TAIL buttons in December as we were dealing with his acral lick/bite problem. At first his use of the body part buttons confounded me, especially when he kept talking about TAIL after it healed and NECK after the cone came off.

However, by the end of January I had tentative hypotheses for all three of those words, and by mid-February, with hundreds of accumulated examples, I felt highly confident in the overall pattern. By then I had also added PAWS (later adjusted to PAW) and watched how he used that one for a couple of weeks as well.

My conclusion is that Tashi has an extremely embodied way of thinking about the world, which causes him to express concepts preferentially (but not exclusively) in terms of body parts. This is both fascinating and entirely alien to me, as someone who (through some combination of neurodivergence and lifelong CPTSD) has always been the opposite: barely aware of or present in my body at all.

Most of these concepts he had buttons for already, a couple I added subsequently, taking the cue. He will use the body parts and these other words interchangeably, with a definite preference for the body part. Button distance may factor into his choice of which synonym to use, but is definitely not wholly determinate.

  • NECK gets used as a synonym for LEASH or WALK
  • BELLY gets used as a synonym for HUNGRY and/or FOOD/TREAT
  • PAW(S) gets used as a synonym for GO/COME and/or HELP
  • TAIL gets used as a synonym for … this one is the least clear so I’ll just say “positive feelings”: HAPPY and/or EXCITED, possibly WANT and/or GOOD*

(* GOOD is a word he knows but doesn’t have a button for yet.)

Generally how I handle these things is to confirm with the more specific words based on context. So for example if he presses NECK during the day, I ask if he wants to go for a walk, whereas at night I ask if he needs to potty on leash; those are the two main reasons we put him on a leash and are mutually exclusive with regard to timing.

I then watch both body language and subsequent presses to determine an answer (so far Tashi is still more likely to answer direct questions with body language than with buttons; in the ordinary course of things he witnesses fewer examples of question-and-answer exchanges than statements, and other things have taken priority).

Note that this whole pattern fits right in with his earlier off-label use of SKRITCHES to mean HELP — with only nine words to choose from, he went with a physical synonym, “use your monkey hands to do a thing”. But off-label use of SKRITCHES stopped instantly as soon as he had HELP, whereas he still sometimes uses HELP even after getting PAW(S).

Hindsight and a Diagnosis

On January 28, I took a two-and-a-half-hour nap in the afternoon. (I have chronic insomnia, so I take sleep whenever I can get it.) Jak, on his way out to run an errand, sent me a message that he’d noticed Tashi favoring his right rear leg. When I woke up and got the message, I quickly went and checked him out; sure enough, he wasn’t putting any weight on his right rear foot at all. With Jak’s help holding him still, I examined Tashi’s paw thoroughly with my natural microscopes (pathological myopia ftw) and found no sign of a glass sliver or any injury on the foot itself. Our conclusion was that he must have strained or sprained something — Jak thought maybe during his midday fetch session, even though he didn’t see any signs of it at the time.

Nine days later I finally got around to reviewing camera footage for the 28th, which transformed my whole understanding of the day. Turns out Tashi didn’t hurt himself during a midday exercise session with Jak — he hadn’t even had a midday exercise session with Jak, a fact that caused me to raise some serious eyebrow in my spouse’s direction. Rather, the camera revealed that Tashi had started showing the first slight signs of a limp just after nine in the morning, about an hour after my morning fetch session. It got progressively worse over the next four hours, but I remained oblivious right up until I went to nap, because — as the cameras showed — he never actually walked in my sight during that time. I was mostly working on the computer in the bedroom; Tashi would get up, limp over to the soundboard, press buttons, and then sit down, so that by the time I showed up to respond I couldn’t tell anything was physically amiss. Other times I would walk through the room and he would be lying in my recliner — a totally normal state of affairs.

But that wasn’t the worst part — the real facepalm moment came when I realized that Tashi had tried at least twice to tell me/us what was going on, and we’d misunderstood both times. (I saved these clips and eventually I’ll put a video together, but — so far not enough time.)

At 9:08a, just as a slight limp started to be visible on camera, he said PAWS HELP. By this point I was already so used to body parts being non-literal for him, and translating PAWS as “go/come help me with something”, that it never occurred to me he might mean literal paw. I came out and asked him what he wanted help with … got no answer, and finally gave him some pets and skritches (with my paws!) and went back to work. (“Help with my paw, you daft woman, how much more clear could I possibly be?” — Tashi, probably)

Two hours later he tries again: 11:05a, I hear PAWS OUTSIDE HURT. I come out; he’s sitting there looking perky and completely normal to my eyes, even though (as I later saw on camera) his limp on the way up to the board had been pronounced. Jak suggests maybe he’s emotionally hurt because he’d recently walked past without petting him; I accept this explanation and decide I should probably give him a SAD button soon. Then I walk to the back door while asking Tashi if he wants outside, but instead of coming to me he gets back up onto my recliner near where Jak is standing. My view at this point is blocked by the recliner itself and our dining table and chairs, and Jak notices nothing wrong. We think he just wants Jak’s attention.

“I hurt my paw outside” would even have made sense, had I known the context, but the camera showed that OUTSIDE was a shoulder bump as he sat down, and almost certainly accidental; the words he actually nose-booped were PAWS HURT. Which makes my post-nap four p.m. earnest modeling of TASHI PAWS HURT ultra-ironic. I didn’t even remember that he’d said PAWS and HURT together that morning, much less PAWS HELP. I watched that footage wanting to go back and shake myself. (“Yes, Tashi paw hurt, how nice of you to finally catch on to the thing I said to you five hours ago.” — Tashi, probably)

January was the second time he’d gone lame for a few days; the first was back in October. The fact that this seemed unlikely to be a coincidence niggled at me and eventually I went into online research mode. Afterward I closely watched Tashi’s gait under different circumstances for several days, even filmed him running and examined the footage at 1/10 speed, before finally taking him into the vet to have x-rays because I’d become about 90% convinced he had hip dysplasia. Before my bout of research I’d only heard of hip dysplasia as a genetic problem among purebred dogs; I didn’t know mixed breeds could have it too.

Being proved correct about a diagnosis like that is one part satisfying and nine parts tragic. As you can see in the x-ray, both hip joints are quite loose and the right one (left in the image) is halfway out of its socket. This is pretty severe dysplasia for a roughly one-year-old dog.

In the States it would likely mean major surgery, but that isn’t an option here, even in Guadalajara. My vets said they were trying to find someone in Mexico City who could do the surgery, but so far I’ve heard nothing, and I suspect their attempt is actually already complete and that’s the last I’ll hear about it. Since we’re going to Austin in April I also emailed an orthopedic vet there that my sister-in-law recommended — twice — but never got a response. Now I’m emailing random surgical vets in the city in a last-ditch Hail Mary. I don’t even know if it’s possible to do the surgery while on a road trip, or if the logistics of travel and recovery make that a nonstarter, but first I’d have to find someone to talk to about it.



Published inDisabilityGardenMetaNeurodivergencePets


  1. David Gates David Gates

    Fascinating. I’ve been telling a couple of friends about your work with animal language/communication. Is it okay if I share this blog entry with them? Also, you are going to Austin – any “family” information is welcomed via this or other channels.

    So, this morning, after a March that more resembles May so far, I’m waking up to a huge dump of snow, which is reassuring from a climate point of view but also difficult as I have a lot that needs doing today and the stuff continues to come down with a certain aggressive malevolence.

    • Karawynn Karawynn

      Sure! That’s what it’s here for, to be read by interested parties. 🙂

      It will be April before we get to Austin; we’re in the crazy road-trip run-up period now, which is why it took me nearly two weeks to see your comment. Uh, hope the snow has let up by now …

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