Most pet parents are familiar with the pleading eyes, barks, and nudges their dog uses to communicate with them. But Joelle Andres, who adopted Bastian, a terrier rescued from Hurricane Florence in 2018, wanted to understand her dog's needs on a deeper level. So in 2020, she began teaching Bastian to "speak" using buttons. Now, the pup has over 100 thousand followers on Instagram, where Andres shares hilarious videos of the stubborn pup asking for snacks, boat rides and everything in between.
Andres first learned about teaching dogs to speak in October 2019, when she read about Christina Hunger, a speech language pathologist who taught her dog Stella to speak using buttons, called augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. As a special educator herself, Andres was immediately drawn to the challenge of teaching Bastian the same skill.
"I was fascinated by the idea of bridging my hobby of working with my dog and an area that I spend time working with professionally and kind of putting them together," Andres tells Daily Paws.
Once Andres saw Bunny, the viral button-speaking sheepadoodle on TikTok, she was confident Bastian could learn too. In July 2020, Andres began working with FluentPet and the University of California at San Diego in their public study of pet parents teaching their dogs to use AAC devices.
Like most pet parents, Andres and her husband spoke to Bastian every day, enough for him to know basic words and commands like walk, treat, and outside. Naturally, these common phrases—alongside some unique words Bastian was already familiar with, like "cheese"—were the starting point for his training.
Now, Bastian has access to 75 different words and consistently uses about 30. Andres says alongside new words they're still teaching Bastian through positive reinforcement, he also has seasonal words, such as "boat" or "fridge car" (his hilarious way of describing an ice cream truck) that he only uses during the summertime.
As a terrier, Bastian is naturally persistent, which became even more obvious to Andres with his new ability to communicate.
"He really likes the treat button. And a lot of times we'll say 'No treat, all done,' and he just gets really sassy … Then it's 'treat, treat, treat, treat,'" Andres says.
Andres says her goal in teaching Bastian to speak with buttons is for him to gain the ability to advocate for himself and his health. In fact, he's already starting doing so with his feline sister, Kiley, who has kidney disease.
"He's recently told us that he's concerned about her, and it actually does seem to coincide with her kidney levels going up…I believe he has that sense and he's notifying us that something's changed and we need to be on top of it," Andres says.
When Bastian was first adopted, he struggled with separation anxiety and weather-related stress from surviving the hurricane. Now, Andres says she believes his ability to advocate and communicate has made him less anxious.
"I feel like his timidness has gone down and I don't know if that would have changed if we didn't have the buttons or not," Andres says. "But I think I spend more time with him now also because this is something we're learning together and exploring together."