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Sad Kong


I tried and failed to update through the end of March before we — Jak and I and Tashi — went road-tripping to a family gathering in Texas at the beginning of April. Jak managed to get sick a week and a half before our departure date and was down for the count, leaving me scrambling.

Here is what I previously wrote (or can now remember) about March …

Tashi Button Updates


Technically this was the evening of February 29 (I usually have more time to add buttons in the evenings), and is what I went with when I got over my “what if I run out of buttons” paralysis.

This word group is one of the ideas I got from the AIC community; many established button-using households have FRIEND and STRANGER and a few also have FAMILY, and the concepts seem to be important and highly useful to most learners.

I decided to include FAMILY because I was thinking about dog (and wolf) social structure, wondering if they would find a distinction between ‘household/pack’ and ‘not pack but known’ salient, in addition to the friend/stranger distinction.

It was very quickly obvious that Tashi doesn’t know the word FAMILY; I haven’t modeled that word for him nearly as often as FRIEND and STRANGER, so honestly I would have been more surprised if he did know it. Instead he referred to me and Jak as FRIEND (in addition to our own names, occasionally, and also PERSON).

I started modeling FAMILY a bit more once the button was up, but if it doesn’t take I’m not going to worry about it; I’m fine with just FRIEND and STRANGER if that works for him. (But also, more developments to come in April.)


This was not even remotely part of my button plan, but when I introduced Tashi to plain yogurt during the last week of February, his reaction could not have been more clear: he thought this was the best thing he’d ever tasted. He wanted all yogurt all the time, and I could see him throwing food- and water-related words together hoping that some combo would result in the magic substance. Once I determined that he was not lactose-intolerant, and that a moderate amount of yogurt had no ill effects and could be incorporated into his daily diet, I gave him a YOGURT button on the third of March.

And then I had to properly set expectations as to the amount of yogurt that he could consume in any one day. We also had some difficulty over the form the yogurt would take, which I will explain more about below.


The HERE button, added March 6, is part of my ongoing attempt to solve The Mystery of Off-Label Place Words. He definitely has been using HERE as a sort of “yoohoo” attention-getter, which makes sense given the contexts he knows it from: phrases like “come here” and “look here”. In fact I have a strong suspicion that his weird usage of all the place words I’ve offered him on buttons, except OUTSIDE (INSIDE, BED, CHAIR, and CAR), has been due to his using them as a kind of “yoohoo”.

It’s a tough thing to prove for certain, though. He definitely knows all four of those words (plus “rug”) when spoken, and responds appropriately, so there must be some reason why he throws non-OUTSIDE place words around willy-nilly all the time. I note that he doesn’t need to request any of those other places except CAR, and requesting CAR would not often end in success. He talks about his feelings a lot, but he’s generally not a big narrator of external events or circumstances unless something really unusual is going on, so maybe those words are just … not that salient to him.


A long series of mystery WATER presses (some of which may have been yogurt-related, but the phenomenon long predates his first yogurt encounter) led to my bumping up the priority of BATH, adding it on March 16. He’d demonstrated back in November that he did know the word “bath” (cute anecdote, if you missed it). I have long used “bath” for human baths and showers, as well as for washing objects, like his balls and toys. So there were a variety of ways he could use the word that would be more specific than water, even if I did not expect him to start requesting baths for himself (because what dog does that?)

Mine, apparently. Tashi pressed BATH several times over the first few days, but without any corresponding noun that I could hook it to. I’m sorry to say I didn’t seriously consider that he might be asking for a bath until the day he said BATH and then … walked all the way into the back bathroom (the one with the tub, where all his baths to date had taken place) and stared into the bathtub. I was gobsmacked, and kept questioning him; as soon as I asked if he wanted to get into the tub, he promptly did.

So … I ran some water and rinsed him off? (I didn’t have shampoo to hand and he didn’t really need a full-on bath.) He drank some of the running water and seemed happy to have it poured over him for a while. Then he let me know that he was done and I let him jump out and dried him off, still bemused.

IĀ am going to turn this footage into a video because even without a camera in the bathroom, I think I’ve got enough to work with. He’s gotten a couple of other baths on request since then (and I’ve had to turn him down a couple of times as well, when the timing was bad).


As with most words I add now, I’ve been modeling these for some months before adding them on March 20. Tashi was noticeably most interested in SNIFF and used it right away, then quite a bit over the first few days.

He didn’t use LISTEN at all until March 24, when one of the four vacation homes in our little cluster of six houses acquired overnight tenants, including children and a small barky dog. Tashi’s response to the barking emanating from next door was LISTEN.

He’s used LOOK a couple of times but not often, and not referring to anything specific I could identify, but much like another general attention-getter. I also wonder if our response to SNIFF was disappointing, because its use has fallen off sharply, and now LISTEN is more popular.


CHAIR (removed)

After two and a half weeks of observing that HERE was being used identically to, and had largely taken the place of, CHAIR, I removed CHAIR.

I’d originally put LOVE in the floor layout in December, but it got very little (intentional) use, and so it was one of the words I left off when I moved everything to the wall a few weeks later.

On March 22, I added LOVE back. In the interim, I’d verbally modeled “love” a lot more … mostly because my feelings about Tashi became less conflicted and more wholeheartedly positive once he stopped bullying and hurting me.

And surprise! This time around he uses LOVE significantly more often. (Not with an object so far though — just solo. He’s that way most of the time with feeling words, but I live in hope that over time, with modeling, he will get more specific.)


BONE is also a verb

So because Tashi’s best dog buddy is named Chewie (after his propensity for the activity and a pun on the Mexican nickname Chuy), I never used the word “chew” with him to refer to the act of gnawing on something. Instead I repurposed the word and button BITE, and modeled BITE BONE and BITE KONG and so on (as well as the original NO BITE with regard to humans and cats).

But Tashi must conceive of biting as something distinct from gnawing or chewing, because he does not use the word BITE in that sense at all. Instead he generalized the word BONE — which I used for any hard nylon chew object, like a Nylabone or Benebone — and turned it into a verb.

This coincided with a general reduction in interest in chewing on nylon as he passed the (approximate) one-year mark. In December he was decimating a Benebone every two weeks; six weeks later he was hardly touching them. He still likes to chew softer things like kongs and actual sticks, but the hard nylon is now mostly a hard pass.

I knew in late January he’d gone off-label with it, but it took many more weeks of BONE presses that didn’t mean bone before I suspected he’d verbed it, and then a few more weeks to confirm.

I cannot bring myself to use the word “gnaw” verbally, it’s too awkward-sounding, and “chew” is still a problematic homonym, so … I guess BONE it is. I already walk around talking about “balling the dog” to refer to a fetch session with the rubber Chuck-Its (which are the ball equivalent of yogurt in Tashi’s eyes, no mere tennis ball can compete); I might as well just give in and start encouraging him to “bone that gator!”

Swear Words

One of the most fascinating things (in my opinion) to come out of the talking-pet movement is the revelation that other species spontaneously and independently repurpose feces-related words as swear words. I’ve seen multiple cats use LITTERBOX in this way, and POOP is by far the most popular dog swear (although I’ve also seen PEE/POTTY and equivalents).

So far, I cannot be certain whether Tashi has ever used POOP as a swear or not. It’s especially hard to tell in the context of being denied OUTSIDE (something that happened often when he was a puppy and more prone to getting into trouble when unsupervised); is POOP an expression of discontent with the answer, or another tactic to get to go out?

What I can be sure of, after many months of contextual clues, is that he is using BITE as a swear. I watched a clip recently where he’s tapping out a multi-word sentence, and partway through he hits a button that doesn’t work, it isn’t making a sound. He tries it again and when it fails a second time, he hits BITE instead. BITE was nearby, but definitely not part of the original plan; the other four words make sense together but BITE does not fit. Enough of those kinds of situations have convinced me that BITE is at least usually, and maybe even always, a swear word.

This is unique among the button learners I’ve seen, but considering Tashi’s history and personality, it actually makes a great deal of sense. He has Big Frustrations, and his instinctive response to them is biting. Biting cats and people got him in a great deal of trouble in his first few months with us, culminating in the dreaded ALONE, so BITE probably has a negative/forbidden connotation.

Now he’s learned to self-regulate with displacement behaviors, like grabbing a rubber ball and ‘squinching’ it repeatedly, or grabbing a soft toy and squeaking or shaking it, or even fighting his bed if it’s nearby. All of which are so much better than biting the human!

But they’re all still biting. And now that he has a BITE button, apparently sometimes he just says it instead of doing it. Which is also a better option, so no complaints.

YOGURT: form matters

So the first three days that I gave Tashi yogurt, it was frozen in a kong. Previously Tashi’s entire experience with kongs had been the ones packed with frozen chicken gizzards that I gave him daily (up to five, at the height of his puppy appetite) — technically just part of his raw mostly-meat diet.

But even though I tried to plug the small hole at the bottom of the kong with a more solid treat before adding the yogurt, it still ran out the bottom and made a mess. After three tries I jettisoned the kong idea and started trying other options. First I tried YOGURT ICE-CUBE: frozen in a silicone ice cube tray (too difficult to extract, and too quick and easy for Tashi to eat). Then I tried YOGURT LICK: bought a cheap lick mat on Amazon (the suction cups don’t work well, so it slides around on the floor, and the divots are so small that a lot of yogurt got wasted).

But Tashi kept asking for YOGURT KONG (or KONG YOGURT, or sometimes TREAT KONG, etc — he’s not much for word order). He’d eat it in other formats (I mean, it’s yogurt), but he really wanted it in the kong. And when he’d just say KONG, about half the time he’d sniff and refuse the offer of a gizzard kong — something that never happened before he learned that kongs might also contain yogurt. Sometimes he’d even say HAPPY KONG … and still refuse it.

I was working on a way to give him a yogurt kong! I’m not a monster! My plan was to buy a different kong-like object from another manufacturer, one which does not have a bottom hole — but I had to wait until we got to the US. For the intervening two weeks, I was stuck offering yogurt in these clearly sub-optimal formats.


During most of this same period, Tashi’s best buddy was limping and unavailable to play for more than two weeks. And for a few days Tashi accepted the explanation (CHEWIE LEG HURT, NO PLAY etc) but eventually he seemed to become kind of depressed about it. One day he said SAD CHEWIE, and then about half a minute later EXCITED KONG, which I took as “I’m sad about my missing friend and would like to eat my feelings now.” And indeed his body language was increasingly depressed over larger spans of the day (even though BALLs or WALKs would always perk him right up).

Mirroring this depressed attitude, he started saying SAD a whole lot, like half a dozen times a day, every day. Tashi doesn’t understand how to answer “why?” questions yet (I need to rope Jak into modeling them with me), but I guessed it was about Chewie (even though he’d only said SAD CHEWIE the one time). So when he finally got to see Chewie again, I thought the SAD would abate.

And it did: no SADs at all for one whole day! Until the following morning, when we were back to SAD SAD SAD again. This was a whole new flavor of helpless anguish: my dog constantly telling me he’s sad and I don’t know why.

After two more days of this it finally clicked, when (with my brain finally cleared of its preconceptions) I realized how often SAD was paired with KONG. Somewhere around 95% of the phrases with SAD also involved either BONE (which remember is also the verb “chew”) or KONG or both, and most of those were just SAD KONG, period.

Faced with the persistent lack of YOGURT KONG (otherwise known as HAPPY KONG, see above), Tashi named gizzard kongs (of which he gets four a day!) SAD KONG. So when he asks for SAD KONG he’s basically like, “Okay fine, I know I won’t get the good kong, I guess I’ll take theĀ inferior kong. But I’m gonna pout about it.”

ThisĀ slayed me.


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