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Woman teaches her Sheepadoodle how to communicate using buttons

By Yasmeen Wafai, The Seattle Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

SEATTLE - If you have a pet, you've probably wished at some point that it could talk to you. Too bad that's impossible ... or is it? Alexis Devine would tell you that her dog can - in a way.

Devine, an artist in Tacoma, Wash., has had Bunny, a female Sheepadoodle, for a year. And in that time, Devine says she's introduced Bunny to more than 50 words by teaching her to press buttons that play words out loud.

For instance, as seen in videos Devine has posted on social media, if Bunny wants to go to the park, she'll press a button that says "park." Or, if she wants to play, she'll hit the button for "play." Those posts on Instagram and TikTok have become wildly popular, with the duo amassing over 300,000 followers on Instagram and 3.4 million followers on TikTok.

Devine was inspired after finding, on Instagram, Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist who teaches her dog, Stella, how to communicate with buttons.

"My goal before I got her was that I wanted to have the most connected, engaged relationship possible and just see what the possibilities are," Devine said. "I feel like there's so much potential in animal relationships and I really wanted to make the most of it."

Devine uses puzzle-piece-like boards called HexTiles to hold the buttons in place. The HexTiles are made by FluentPet, which is owned by CleverPet, a company founded by cognitive scientist Leo Trottier. Trottier said those who test the HexTile prototype, like Devine, don't get paid to use them, but they do get money when they refer customers with a link.

 

The buttons are organized using the Fitzgerald Key, a system developed by Edith Fitzgerald, a teacher who thought it would be easier for deaf children to learn sentence structure if words were grouped in sentence parts such as people, actions, places and things. The buttons are used as a tool for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), a practice that speech-language pathologists use with nonverbal people to communicate.

While Devine was open to trying the buttons, they were never something she forced on Bunny. She said they were on the back burner while she was teaching Bunny basic obedience as a puppy.

"If it works, it works - cool, and if it doesn't, you know, whatever, fun experiment," Devine said of her approach to the buttons.

Despite this, Bunny ended up being interested in the buttons and took to them quickly, Devine said, adding that Bunny will initiate conversations throughout the day.

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