Teaching Dogs to Talk

by Belinda Recio

At the start of her book, How Stella Learned to Talk, Christina Hunger describes an encounter between herself and her dog, Stella. Her fiancé was about to take Stella for a walk, so Hunger wished them a good time and said goodbye. Stella, however, had a slightly different agenda. She met Hunger’s eyes, held her gaze for a few seconds, and then pressed a series of large plastic buttons in a sequence that activated the pre-recorded words: “Christina come play love you.” Stella then stepped away from the buttons and looked at Hunger, as if waiting for a response. “You want me to come play, Stella?” Hunger asked. This time, Stella replied in a more doglike way, by enthusiastically wagging her tail. Hunger obliged and joined them on their morning walk.

Hunger is a speech pathologist who took her skills and experience from working with developmentally delayed children and used them to teach her dog to talk. After bringing Stella home, Hunger was struck by the way the puppy demonstrated some of the same prelinguistic communication behaviors that toddlers do prior to talking, and she had an idea. When working as a speech pathologist, Hunger often uses AAC—augmentative and alternative communication—a tool that enables people with speech delays or disorders the ability to produce words through another medium. She wondered if she could use the same approach to train Stella.

Hunger knew the icons on the tablets she uses with children would be too small, so she did some research and decided to try using large plastic recordable answer buzzers. These buttons record words then play them back when pressed. Hunger programmed the buttons with words such as “outside,” “water,” “walk,” “play” and “come,” as well as phrases, like “I love you,” and mounted them on a board. She taught Stella the words for objects, places, actions and even emotional states, and then trained her to use the buttons to produce the words. Before long, Stella was “talking” by pawing the buttons.

In less than two years, Stella has learned 45 words and phrases and combines them in her own way to express her needs, desires, emotions and even observations. Stella has strung words into many different kinds of phrases, such as “love you come,” before rolling over for a belly rub; “bed want outside,” which is followed by a nap in the backyard in the sun; “help beach love you” to ask for a trip to the beach; and “help toy couch” when she needs Hunger’s assistance retrieving a ball that had rolled under the couch out of reach.

Stella has used buttons not only to make requests, but to express her feelings. Once, when the button for “beach” broke, depriving Stella from expressing her desire to go to the beach, she touched the button for “mad.” She used the “happy” button in connection in a variety of contexts, such as after eating food she likes. Often, after playing in the park, she would tap out “park happy.” In her book, Hunger describes numerous entertaining, touching and fascinating examples of Stella’s utterances using her buttons.

Just as many parents will humorously confess to having fleeting moments of regret about teaching their toddlers to speak, one can’t help but wonder if Hunger ever feels the same way about teaching Stella to speak. For instance, Stella, after being ignored, sometimes stands on a particular button, so it repeats over and over again, like a toddler demanding her way. She will stay on the button until she gets what she wants, or reluctantly accepts Hunger’s denial of her request. Stella has also produced unexpected and slightly impolite utterances. Once while guests were taking too long to say goodbye, Stella decided it was time to wrap it up already, so she stood on the “bye” button, seeming to suggest that Hunger’s guests were overstaying their welcome.

Hunger’s press coverage and her book have inspired people around the world to try teaching their own dogs—as well as cats and other species—to talk using the same technique. She has received thousands of emails from people who are having successful experiences, and is pleased that her story has inspired others to get to better know their dogs and other companion animals. Working with the company that makes the recordable answer buzzers, Hunger created a Talking Pet Starter Set that includes four buttons as well as activities and tips. She describes it as a great introduction to the method for anyone who’s interested. As you might have guessed, I was barely halfway into Hunger’s book before I went online and ordered a set to try out with my dog. Stay tuned! hungerforwords.com

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