Teaching Barney to Talk!

Date: 24th August 2021

First words

After welcoming our gorgeous puppy Barney to our family last summer, I’ve been following the story of Christina Hunger, SLP and her dog Stella (and how she learned to talk using AAC).  I was fascinated by this and keen to try it with Barney. I am passionate about communication and the idea of being able to communicate with Barney was particularly exciting.     

We introduced a few buttons last year but did not take this any further at the time. Earlier this year, I was further inspired by Christina Hunger’s book ‘How Stella learned to Talk’ and following this we have increased Barney’s available vocabulary and he currently has 18 different buttons/words. He is not using all of them yet, but the more words we give him the harder he is trying to communicate with us.

I am fascinated that dogs display many of the same non-verbal and pre-linguistic skills that children do, and therefore we are applying lots of similar strategies to communicate with Barney. For example, dogs bring a toy to you if they want to play; they indicate that they need something with gesture (i.e. pawing at an empty water bowl), and they use eye contact to gain attention.

We also know that dogs understand words – if you’ve ever owned a dog you will know that there are certain words you need to spell out loud so they do not know what you are talking about (for Barney this is definitely ‘walk’ and ‘carrot’!).

Just like children, understanding of words develops before using words and so we have modelled lots of single words to Barney in everyday contexts to support his understanding of language. We have been modelling spoken words in general situations e.g. saying ‘dinner’ as we put down his food bowl, and we also sometimes combine this by pressing the pre-recorded button to help model where the word is located on his board, and provide an additional opportunity to hear the word.

I have extensive experience of working with parents of young children who are late to start talking and I regularly work with parents to develop strategies to help. I love empowering parents to support their children’s communication and this is so much more than just the words we use.  I am applying a lot of these strategies to the work I am doing with Barney, and also coaching my husband using similar advice I would give parents.

Similar to child language development, Barney’s first expressive words, have been the things that are most meaningful and motivating to him: outside, dinner, water, play, carrot.

We have been thinking carefully about which words to model and which buttons to introduce next to help him to have a useful vocabulary. Barney also seems to be trying to communicate with us more specifically without words e.g. he is making more eye contact.

Strategies to support use of first words in children (which I have also applied with Barney):

  • Observe how your child is currently communicating and notice what they are showing you. For example, if they want a drink do they point to the bottle, take you by the hand, or show you another way.
  • Use opportunities when the child is currently communicating something to model words
  • Model simple language in context e.g. water, dinner, play
  • Use language that follows the child’s interest and things they are looking at e.g. ‘play ball’, ‘big car, ‘more water’
  • Repeat key words in different situations so that the child hears them in a range of contexts
  • Use more comments than questions – it is more helpful to provide simple language models than to ask lots of questions. The more times they hear a word, the more likely they are to use it.

Barney is a dog and is limited in the communication skills he has but it is wonderful being able to give him an additional tool which he is thriving from. The more opportunities we give him to communicate, the more he is trying, and he is also joining words together now. We also have a younger puppy, Luna, and although she is not yet using the buttons, she is showing increasing interest, and also responds when Barney presses the most motivating buttons (dinner and carrot – both of which have her running inside from the garden to make sure she isn’t missing out on some food!)

Every time Barney tries to communicate with us, it brings a sense of joy and excitement and it’s an exciting journey to be taking. We are also looking forward to seeing this develop with Luna too. We also hope, that one day both puppies will be therapy dogs, and support me in my work as a Speech and Language Therapist.

For more information, check out updates on my blog at www.speechstuff.co.uk and follow Barney on Instagram Barney_by_the_sea

Written by: Julie Cota

Speech and Language Therapist at Speech Stuff


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