Back with Max was a pup, I got a doorbell (actually a strand of fabric with several bells on it) with the idea that when Max wanted to go out, she would go and ring the bell. In theory, it’s an excellent plan. And it even worked… For a while. Then Max realized that she could get my attention anytime she wanted it by ringing the bell, and did so. Repeatedly. All the time.
We got rid of the bells.
Flash forward the year, and I’ve been watching my friend Mary Robinette Kowal document how she is teaching her cat how to use “speaking” buttons to communicate. And I think to myself, that might actually be fun to try with Max. And then I remembered the bells incident, and I thought, maybe not.
But with Max’s board and train in the rearview mirror, I’m aware of the fact that S., Max’s trainer, is right: I have a very smart dog. And smart dogs need things to occupy their brains, otherwise they find things to occupy their brains. And those things are never pleasing to the human in the household. So I said the hell with it, and ordered their basic button kit. If it doesn’t work out, I figure I can hand it on to somebody else who wants to give it a try.
The kit is two buttons, which I can record a word or phrase on, and foam placemats to set the buttons in, to make them easier to use. So the first decision I had to make was, what two words were they going to use? It wasn’t a question of what I said to Max, but what I wanted her to say to me. After a few days of thinking, I settled on “toy,” and “out.” Toy, because I will tell her to “get the toy,“ or “fetch the toy,“ and she knows what I mean. So I’m hoping that she will associate the word toy with a desire to play. “Out” is kind of self-explanatory.
The plan is to start with these two, and eventually work her (our) way up to more abstract but useful concepts like “hungry,” “sleepy,” “mad” and “scared.” Part of me is thinking like a dog owner – being able to know more specifically what’s going on in her doggy brain will help us interact better. But part of me is also thinking like a writer, fascinated to see how an “alien” brain learns, using human tools and concepts…
Is this gonna work? Or is Max going to decide it’s a stupid game and she doesn’t want to play? I have no idea.
I guess we’ll find out next month.