Kailey & Critters

Music maker. Service dog handler.
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Kailey Kaes is finishing up a degree in piano performance and belongs to Harbor Rotimi, her service dog; Percy Circus and Pogues, formerly feral feline litter mates; and Posie, the family dog. She loves sunshine. And riding her unicycle.

Button Update Form Mods

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So Lindsay + Dewey & Dusty put in a lot of work to create templates and tutorials to make button tracking easier, and if you haven't seen them, I highly recommend you check them out in Step 4 of this post:


I've found them really helpful. I made some modifications that I'm still trying to integrate into the rest of the tools. However, as some of the modifications I made might be pertinent for others now, I wanted to share what I have that's at least semi-finished. Here's our modified button tracking form:


You won't be able to see the second section unless you fill out the form (please don't), so here's a screenshot of the second page: 


And here's some of the fun data that you can see with simply the button tracking form, independent of the super fun Google Data Studio integrations. I want to note that these do not reflect the most up to date information for Harbor overall as I've recently added a bunch of data directly into the spreadsheet to which this form is linked. Also, I have something similar to dyslexia or dyscalculia but for space and direction instead of words or numbers (objects in space are slippery for me/all space is space/brains are so diverse), so I'm pretty sure I got a bunch of Harbor's interaction style questions wrong early on when I was recording data. He's been showing a serious preference for his left paw lately. These pictures are simply to give you an idea of the sort of eye candy you can get with this tool:

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So just about as soon as Harbor had three words to rub together, he and I started having arguments and negotiations. No surprise there; he’s an irrepressible independent thinker. But recently, rather than arguing responses he doesn’t like with insistence or statements to the contrary or negotiating better conditions of play, he’s started bargaining by making small concessions like a street vendor or something. Like he’ll start off with something like this: 
and when I reply with  “We’ll play tennis ball later,” he’ll come back with something like INSIDE TENNIS BALL PLAY, making a small allowance for a less preferred location or no tennis ball, etc. until he’s run out of bargaining power. Then he’ll try to track down another human to bargain with. Anyone else with learners who bargain? What does it look like in your learners?
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Tonight Pogues started eating Harbor’s food that he’d left untouched for hours. I was in the kitchen cooking but heard my own voice saying “No”  from the dining room. My sister had a better view of what was going on from where she was standing and said, “Harbor is telling Pogues no.” When I walked in to check it out, Harbor stood postured in a still, warning stance with his head low, glaring at Pogues. Boundaries are respected in this house, even if you have retractable claws, so I made sure Pogues ceased his graze. I really didn’t expect anyone would use their buttons with other animals. But here we are. 
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Our Value

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I’ve been posting a lot about my dog because he caught on and progressed quickly, presenting an unexpected set of challenges. But I’ve seen a few topics people have posted on this forum that sound like they’re a bit discouraged, downtrodden with their animal’s slow progress. I wanted to share footage of Percy Circus and Pogues as my first learner video to offer some encouragement and perspective. When it comes to using AAC, my cats are not rockstars. That’s okay. They don’t have to be. This isn’t a competition. They are not more valuable if they are beautiful, popular, clever or have cool skills to show off to the world. They are valuable because they are living creatures. We are not more valuable if our animals successfully use AAC to communicate. We are valuable because we are living creatures. 

Completely feral littermates when I got them, Percy and Pogues came to me at eight weeks old from a situation that would never have included the mercy of an animal shelter. They were about a month too young for kittens to leave their mama, and neither was fully weaned, but the alternative was far more grim. Their lives’ value gave me a reason to keep going, keep thinking, keep waking up and keep caring at a time when I saw absolutely no reason to do so. At a time when I was reeling from trauma so great that only a couple of weeks before I brought them home, my mother had to physically help me out of bed in the morning, choose my clothes, and put them on my body. I’m sure a lot of us have stories like mine. It’s not unique. Animals are remarkable gifts that ease human suffering and bring joy despite impossible odds. 

Percy Circus and Pogues have not taken to AAC. After seven weeks of modeling, neither have used a button in a contextually appropriate way. And really, why should they? They’re five and a half years old. They’re very bonded to me, and we have established patterns of effective communication. Pogues has good adaptive intelligence and complex patterns of behavior and expression that indicate a fair amount of intellectual and emotional depth, but he doesn’t see very well and has always taken longer to adjust to new people and things while he learns their smells and sounds and movements. Percy Circus is a simple, friendly guy with lots of vocal expression who hates to be separated from his brother and somehow always knows to turn up and snuggle with folks who are distressed, even running up to strangers (like repair people) who come into the house with sad eyes. My cats are wonderful individuals, and I love them. They have many merits, but right now, using AAC isn’t one of them. 

When I took on this endeavor, I wanted to accomplish three things: teach and connect with my animals, learn about AAC  use in animals and provide data for TCT research, and give my critters an outlet to express themselves...if they had anything to say in human language. But if they don’t have anything to say with human words, I’ve still accomplished everything I set out to do. Regardless of whether they ever use a button in a contextually appropriate way, the data set their learning journey has provided thus far gives scientists a better view of the big picture of receptive and expressive language in animals. Even if they never use AAC, it’s there for them, and I’ll keep modeling. In modeling and teaching AAC, we have to consider our animals and what makes them tick beyond the status quo, giving us the opportunity to know and love and connect with them better. That’s a win in my book. 
For now, I’ll start setting more time aside to do target practice with them routinely. Maybe that’ll make them more curious and thoughtful about the buttons scattered about the house and their potential. But if not, I’m proud of them for being them.

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Harbor Rotimi (Kailey K)

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Learner Name: Harbor Rotimi

Age: 1, (DOB: 06/27/2019)

Teacher Name: Primarily Kailey, but reinforced by Trystan, Krystal, Zoey and Wesley

Started Learning Word Buttons: 12/19/2020

Number of Words

Social Media

  • Instagram: @harbutter


Contextually Appropriate
Has used on purpose in a contextually appropriate way at least once
  • Outside
  • Play 
  • Tennis Ball
  • All Done
  • Friend
  • South Cottage
  • Stranger 
  • Posie
  • Mama
  • Help
  • Eat
  • Want 
  • Water
  • Music
  • Walk
  • Hug me
  • Where
  • Later
  • Scratch (Affixed to the cats’s scratching post, it’s not really meant for him, but he uses it.)
  • Now
  • Percy
  • Yes
  • No
  • I love you
  • Inside
  • Concerned
  • Pogues
  • Big (short for Big Mama, my mother, Krystal) 
  • Happy
  • Hungry (this is also only for the cats, but he's used it contextually

has used on purpose, but either too ambiguous to understand, clear he misunderstands the word, or not contextually appropriate

Just There For Now Words hasn’t tried himself, but has engaged in interaction where these words were modeled
  • Wesley
  • Zoey
  • Harbor


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Just Us? 21 Buttons, No Soundboard

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Okay, story time! 

My learners and I started about six weeks ago. My dog progressed from stage 0 to stage 4 in four days. Things were going great. In about 10 days, with some excellent advice from Libby  and Anna & Bertie   (which you can check out here: https://how.theycantalk.org/c/discussion/pacing-please-send-help), we cruised along at a very uplifting pace, adding about 14-18 buttons to a full soundboard in a couple weeks, Harbor putting together unique 2-3 word phrases and communicating clearly in novel contexts. Honestly, I was a bit floored by his progress, and almost couldn’t believe it was real. Because what dog just needs a new word modeled 1-3 times to run with it in the same day? I must have just been seeing things because I love him, right? Anyway...

Within about 2-3 weeks, an increase in buttons on FluentPet tiles led to spacing issues and frustrations with accuracy (which you can read all about here: https://how.theycantalk.org/c/tech-support/huge-paws-bigger-zeal). Honestly, I think Harbor caught on so quickly and progressed at such a clip that he hadn’t developed intrinsic motivation for AAC communication before we met with our first obstacle. We just hadn’t put in the work and time together for long enough for him to want approach an AAC hurdle with the grit I’ve seen him apply toward so many other solutions in his life. Again, Libby and  Anna & Bertie came through with excellent advice and suggestions and guiding principles, and I worked on transitioning toward stomaching the added cost of likely having to replace FluentPet tiles with more Harbor-friendly tiles. It wasn’t that affording new materials was a real issue, but I was really focused on the investments already made toward this project. Things were getting more complicated. That would be cool. I just needed time. 

With Harbor, I backed off. I love to teach and figured learning principles are probably similar across species. I know I should probably learn more about that, but my gut told me that I needed to simplify quickly or risk losing him after such a promising start. I took a few of his much newer, less tangible words (want, help, now, later...) and put them away. I redistributed some of his more tangible words around the house in relevant areas. “Music” continued to live in the music room, “Stranger” moved to the front door as did “Friend” soon after at my sister’s timely suggestion. “Water” returned next to the bathtub faucet, “Eat” moved to the dining room, etc. The only buttons that remained on the soundboard were “Where”, “Hug me”, “Play”, “Tennis Ball”, “Outside”, “Inside”, “All Done”, “I love you” and some names. This allowed for the former spacing when Harbor succeeded so adeptly and took a lot of the pressure off of us both. 

Then began the creative soundboard usage. Harbor nearly ceased to press buttons on the soundboard. Instead, if prompted to use his words, he would use his left paw to hold a tile down whilst he reached under an adjacent tile with right paw and pastern, his paw spread, his wrist curled around the edge of the tile. He’d grip the tile by contracting his toes together,  pull upward forcefully to break the tiles apart and flip the one in his right paw over, buttons down. He would then proceed to stomp around on top of the upside down tile, successfully setting off every button on the tile he’d flipped. He looked like he was having a ball, working himself into a fun-filled frenzy that superseded any productive AAC communication. This, combined with the fact that he liked to pop his “Outside” button out of the tile before using it, led to systematic FP tile decomposition. Every time he flipped a tile over, the adhesive bond between the plastic top and the foam base of the tile weakened. Every time he popped out a tile, the weaker bond was exacerbated by his nails, regardless of how well rounded they were from grinding, simply because of his weight and strength. (I will say that through it all, every one of his FP buttons remained completely functional and intact, with the exception of “All Done” which, after disassembling and reassembling it, still works somehow, even if it doesn’t depress any longer.) I removed the “Outside” and “Inside” buttons from his soundboard, placed them by the door, and moved the remnant of his soundboard near his elevated “place bed”, a location more associated with calm and impulse control. I left the now defunct tile that had housed location names on the end of his soundboard, it's crazy surface adhered at haphazard intervals, the majority, crackling and flag-like, hovered above the foam. I hoped that if he became too excited and decided to flip a tile, this one would serve as a decoy, preventing gross damage to functional tiles. 

I built a morning routine around using his soundboard in its new location just to maintain some sort of momentum until I sorted everything out. His board held a total of six words/phrases, his name and my name. “Play” and “Tennis ball” often led to tile flipping. So that left “I Love You”, “Hug Me”, “Where” and “All Done” plus names. These four words and our morning interactions with them facilitated Harbor’s adorable question, “Where hug me where?”, on one occasion when I’d ceased to hug him before he was finished, but didn’t show a lot of promise for language acquisition generally speaking. Progress stalled. The frayed edges of our hard-used tiles became more exciting than communicating with AAC. 

As the top peeled away from the base of the tiles, the tiles themselves became more tactilely attractive to Harbor, who’s always been fascinated by the physical world and his effects on it. The textural variety between the surface and base of the hex tiles led Harbor to explore and then revel in the sensation of peeling the tiles asunder. On a few occasions, I found myself telling him, “No!”, as he interacted joyfully with his soundboard, tearing chunks of plastic surface material from their home. This was not how this was supposed to go. This was not positive. To be honest, I think we both started to avoid using his soundboard at this point. A week or two went by with no change. 

On 1/29/21, a Friday, Harbor was trying to engage me in play. I let him know I was busy and then ignored his subsequent, persistent requests because I was helping my sister who needed my full attention. Then I heard my name repeated insistently from an AAC device, “mama, Mama, Mama, MAMA,” stomp, stomp, clatter, stomp, stomp. It was the first time Harbor had used my name to summon me. It was the second time ever that he’d pressed “Mama” on purpose. I dropped everything and hurried into the living room, where Harbor wailed on the button that he’d popped out of his soundboard. It was now shooting waywardly around the slick hardwoods as Harbor lunged after it, bopping as he went. He looked up, thrilled to have gotten my attention, and I had an epiphany. If the tiles themselves are preventing communication right now, why are we using them? Why don’t I just put them away and carry on where we’re at? Why don’t I distribute words into clusters around the house and try again with different tiles when I find some that show more promise for our needs? So that’s what I did. Right now there are four different groups of buttons and a couple of lone buttons distributed into locations where relevant modeling and/or conversations can continue until new tiles arrive. Dynamic conversations with Harbor’s original thoughts that occurred early on will have to wait. Novel combinations and uses of words for both of us won’t happen for awhile. But we’re still working on modeling and trying out multi-word phrases and reinforcing conceptual usages of AAC in the meantime. I even pulled out some of the buttons I’d put away and plan to rotate them into different locations and configurations to work on generalizing concretely as I slowly integrate them onto a new soundboard. Here’s our current set-up:

Dining Room (My dog does eat in the dining room. My cats do not. The family dog does not. Feel free to ask about this.):
  • Want
  • Eat
  • Now 
  • Later

By Back Door #1:
  • Play
  • Tennis Ball
  • All Done
  • Walk

By Back Door #2:
  • Help
  • Outside
  • Inside

Living Room:
 On the cat’s scratching post:
  •  Scratch (That’s expressly for the cats, but only used by H and me at this point)
  •  Percy 
  •  Pogues
 By H’s place bed:
  •  Harbor
  •  Mama
  •  I love you
  •  Hug me

Front Door:
 Right Side:
  •  Stranger 
  •  Friend
 Left Side:
  •  Big (my mother’s name, short for Big Mama, one of H’s favorite people)
  •  Posie (the family dog, away at boarding school right now)
  •  Where 

  • Water

Music Room:
  • Music 

This week our new tiles come. I plan to start moving buttons onto them more slowly this time, beginning with a pace of 2-3 buttons per week starting with older buttons first excepting “Outside”, “Water”, and “Music”, which I plan to move later. So “Play”, “Tennis Ball” and “Where” will find their way onto a soundboard this week, “Hug me”, “I love you” and a name or two next week. This week, I also plan to add a button outside of my brother’s room recorded with him saying his name. (Tryssie is also one of Harbor’s favorite people.)

Has anyone else found themselves in a similar situation? Does anyone reading this have any input or suggestions? I’d love to hear it regardless of whether someone has intimate experience in this scenario, or has on-purpose chosen this method or, like me, found themselves falling, “roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble”* down the grassy, green slope into this improbability. I feel a bit like I’m bushwhacking at this point. Any feedback is super welcome. 

*The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowry 
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Huge Paws—Bigger Zeal

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My learner has 3” paws. He’s about 90lbs and still filling out his adolescent frame. I expect him to gain about 15-25 more pounds in the next 6 months or so. All of this is presenting three distinct challenges to him. 
1. As we add more buttons to his board, he struggles quite a bit to accurately press buttons if they are placed in adjacent slots. Unless there is a slot in between each button (allowing for only three buttons per hex tile) he avoids using them. When I rearrange for a gap, he’ll use them again. 
2. I think because of #1, my learner likes to scratch the buttons most relevant to his communication out of the hex tiles and toss them around. Last night I ground his nails down which has so far prevented this today, but when I popped his “friend” button out for him when he was loving on one of the cats, he immediately used it. I’d been modeling it for him, and he was SUPER excited about that, but he didn’t press the button himself until it wasn’t close enough to another button to risk error. 
3. He broke his “all done” button. I’ve yet to open it up to see how he broke it and if it’s reparable yet, but as he’s only going to get bigger and enthusiasm is just a part of who he is as a dog, I see this being an ongoing (expensive/hindering) problem. 

Has anyone found or created larger hex tiles?

Are there any remedies or mods to the regular FluentPet set up to help improve our outcomes by improving accuracy and preventing breakage? 

Pacing? (Please send help.)

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So I just opened up my FluentPet buttons on Saturday (12/19/20) and have been working on introducing them to three learners: two cats (5y) and a dog (18m). I’ve affixed a “scratch” button to the base of the cats’s scratching post and model its use a few times a day. (They’re strictly indoor cats unless I can supervise, so I’m starting with an alternative to outside for them). My cats are rocking Stage 0, and show interest in the buttons when I model. This timeline is exactly what I expected and I’m so happy they’re curious and show engagement at all. I have questions about my other learner though for very different reasons. My dog started using an “outside” button when I modeled it for him the day I set it up (12/19/20), but I wasn’t convinced he grasped the concept fully. The second day he used “outside” and “play” appropriately in context several times. Today is Thursday (12/24/20). He consistently uses his “play” button appropriately in context and in response to questions and his “outside” button to request to go outside. Today I expanded his soundboard that has the “play” button to include two more hex tiles and an “all done” button. One of the hex tiles is blank, but I wanted to follow the Fitzgerald Key right off the bat so that my dog can find the buttons as we continue. I modeled “all done” when I added it and put up his ball. He imitated me, but when I asked, “What do you want?” he responded by pushing the “play” button. It wasn’t until he was tired and I modeled “all done, play” that he chose to push the “all done” button again. This makes me think that he’s distinguishing between the buttons based on meaning, but I’m not completely convinced. Here’s my question/concern: Is four and a half days a reasonable time frame for a learner to progress from Stage 0 to Stage 4? Is my learner really in Stage 4 already, or am I just hallucinating? Has anyone else’s learner caught on this quick? Should I pace him? Since he learns so quickly, how do I know he’s had enough repetitions and practice with his current set-up for me to add another button? I really don’t want to push him so that he’s frustrated and loses interest, but I also don’t want him to get bored or hold him back. I also don’t want to go too fast and break whatever understanding he has so far. He’s the quickest animal I’ve ever had, he naturally imitates a lot of human behavior, and I talk to him all the time so I kind of thought it would only take him a few weeks to progress from Stage 0 to Stage 4. I was prepared for it to take a bit longer. I was not prepared for him to crack the code in less than a week. HELP.