Brianna H

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I'm an SLP and AAC/AT specialist and work with students ages 3-22. I am also "mom" to Allie, a sweet and cuddly 8-year old cat.

Allie's "first word"!

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It's been almost exactly one month since we started modeling "breakfast", "dinner" and "treat" for my cat, Allie. Today she said "breakfast"! I didn't see it happen, but I ran over and gave her a couple extra bites of her dry food. I don't care if it was accidental and I don't care that it's 9pm (clearly not "breakfast" time haha). I'm just happy to get an unprompted button press!Β 

Interestingly, we've been using some shaping for "dinner" and "treat", but because my husband and I are not morning people, we just model "breakfast" and then hand it to her. Yet that was the one she pressed on her own first. Hoping to actually see the button press happen next time - maybe that'll give me a better idea of whether it was intentional or not.Β 
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Introducing myself & Allie

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Hi everyone! I'm an AAC/AT specialist and SLP, and have recently decided to try using a couple of extra buttons that I had with my cat, Allie. Even before seeing Christina Hunger I was curious about this, but after seeing Billi Speaks and FluentPet, I decided it was time to join in!

Allie currently has three buttons: treat, dinner, breakfast. It's a lot of effort for her to activate them (we are using Learning Resources recordable ones) because she's small (<10 lbs). I'm considering ordering the FluentPet ones and would be interested to hear if anyone has compared the two with cats and/or small dogs?

I've seen the suggestions to start with just one word, and not to use "treat". But for Allie, I'm going a different direction, and thought I would share my thought process with everyone...
1. Receptively, I think she already knows the three words I'm introducing, because she will reliably perk her ears up, stare, etc. if she hears us say them.Β 
2. I could have chosen to use a core word like "eat" instead of specific words (like I would with many of my human students) however, I've been using these three fringe words daily, her whole life, whereas I don't think I've said "eat" to her very often. I also know I use my SLP strategy of emphasizing and repeating key words, even when I don't mean to... I'm sure other SLPs will relate... ("I know, you want dinner. Yes, dinner. Mhm, time for dinner.").
3. I want her to have multiple opportunities throughout the day to make requests. If I only started with one word, she might only have one opportunity per day with that word. (This is key with human learners - many opportunities!)
4. Allie seems to know a few other words receptively (bedtime, nap time, play), but I think food is probably the only thing that is motivating enough for her that she might go to the effort to learn to push a button (which as I mentioned, takes a fair amount of force for her).
5. She does make requests for other things with body language (snuggles, pets, scratches, play) BUT I don't think my husband or I could reliably withhold those things long enough to wait her out for the time it would take to get to understand that we want her to make that request with a button. Whereas we are very used to ignoring her "feed me" meows until it's actually time for her to be fed :).
6. I'm experienced with teaching humans to use AAC, so I'm not afraid to introduce multiple words at once, and don't find it overwhelming. Plus, I'm a big believer in robust vocabularies for human AAC users :).

Currently Allie is at Stage 0, but appears curious about the buttons. My husband and I are using modeling and shaping as teaching strategies. Modeling is well explained on the getting started page, but I thought I'd give a description of how we're adding shaping:
- We model the word first ("e.g. dinner") then wait. If nothing happens after 5 seconds we might model and wait again.
- If Allie approaches the button, sniffs it, or touches it with a paw, we'll immediately honor it as a request and model again (say "yes!" while pouring the food, then push the button)Β 
- I've also added in playing with a favorite toy near her "treat" button, which creates the opportunity for accidental activation (she hits the button or sits on it without meaning to). Then, I use my "act as if" (or "attribute meaning") strategy like I would with my human students: I act as if she meant to do that and immediately honor the request ("yes! Here's a treat!").Β 

I have seen shaping described as a teaching strategy when working with human students, dogs, horses, and other animals such as dolphins. I haven't seen it used with cats but then I honestly don't know a whole lot about research into teaching/training cats! We chose to use shaping with Allie because we think in her case, modeling alone is probably not enough to get her to realize that she is allowed/encouraged to push the buttons, and we don't want to use any physical prompting ("hand over paw"... lol :)) because (just like my human students) that would take away her opportunity to use spontaneous communication.Β 

So, you might wonder - what is the plan once she learns the word "treat", if she starts to overuse it? I don't take words away from human AAC users as a matter of ethics, and I'd prefer not to take them away from Allie either. If she starts to over-request things,Β we'll introduce additional words (probably "later," and alternative reinforcers she's allowed to have any time such as "pet me", "play"). I expect by that point we might be able to more reliably wait her out for things like "play" since it probably won't take as much wait time for additional buttons as it's going to for the first few. Will let you know how that goes!Β 
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