Over a year into the pandemic, your bookshelves may be so crowded with books that you can’t imagine adding another. But a 3-year-old dog named Stella will have you rethinking that.
Not familiar with the brown pup with a white belly, a mix of Catahoula and Australian cattle dog? She’s quite the social media sensation, with 788,000 followers on Instagram, 101,000 followers on YouTube and 28,000 followers on Facebook, and now there’s a book dedicated to all that she’s learned in her short life. Stella can communicate with humans using a device created by her owner, Christina Hunger.
In “How Stella Learned To Talk," Hunger, a speech pathologist and Aurora, Illinois native, takes us through her journey teaching Stella how to talk via augmentative and alternative communication. AAC is a tool that gives people with severe speech delays or disorders the ability to say words through another medium. The skills and tools she used to help children communicate, Hunger has applied to Stella’s communication development.
“All I wanted was to be able to share this story in its entirety and help people see Stella’s communication from my lens as a speech therapist,” Hunger said.
She programmed “recordable answer buzzers” with words like “play,” “outside” and “water,” then added “walk,” “bye,” “help,” “no” and “come.” These days, Stella knows and uses 48 words or phrases (including “love you”) on a board on which where she communicates with her owners. She can combine up to five words to create unique phrases, ask and answer questions, express her thoughts and feelings, make observations and participate in short conversations. For example, Stella used the phrases “help, beach, love you” to ask her owners to take her to the beach. She then pressed the buttons to make the phrases “love you, water” and stood next to her beach collar.
And this all started when Hunger asked what would happen if she tried the language interventions with her puppy that she used with her young human clients at a clinic in Omaha, Nebraska.
In the book, Hunger draws on her language techniques to take readers through major life shifts with Stella at her side, concluding every chapter with takeaways for those who want to teach their dog to communicate. Hunger said she’s received thousands of emails from pet owners with questions about her “Hunger” method, which she hopes the book answers.
“I wanted people to understand the whole story because I think when there’s something so new and groundbreaking like this, you have to be in the person’s perspective and understand how it came to be what it is now,” Hunger said.
“I wanted this full story that showed my perspective, and all of the steps teaching her and how I was processing it, and what I was comparing this to and human language development,” she said. “But I also knew that I wanted to help people teach their own dogs, and so that was the goal from the start to find a happy medium and a good balance between those.”
Not to give spoilers, but there are scenes in the book that will have pet lovers and those who have never owned pets smiling: such as Stella saying “bye” to Hunger’s guests to usher them out the door since it was past her bedtime. The scenes, coupled with fundamentals about speech and how we learn, are engaging.
We talked with Hunger, a Northern Illinois University graduate, before the release of her book to find out more about Stella and Hunger’s developing relationship and how families can form a stronger bond with their furry family member. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: Given the pandemic, your tips could be something fun to engage the whole family. Was that the plan for the release of the book?
A: It’s kind of funny how it ended up working out with the pandemic because now there’s just so many more dog owners in the world, because so many people adopted pets in their home. I think the book will have an even bigger impact now.
What I wanted was to show people what’s possible (in) this whole new era of interspecies communication. Since it came out, people from around the world have started teaching their own dogs; some people have started teaching cats. And I’ve seen people try with some other animals too. It’s so exciting to see this enthusiasm, curiosity and empowerment that people can just try something and see how it goes, and see what they discover.
Q: You and Stella met when she was weaned. Is it easier to teach a young dog tricks versus an older dog?
A: It’s definitely possible to teach older dogs. A lot of people who have seen this and have immediately started with their pets who are older have had success. I think for my personal journey with Stella, it really helped that she was a puppy because this was brand new, and I was just taking it step by step. I did see Stella as like a blank slate.
Q: Can the average person build a communication device for their pet on their own?
A: I started by buying a box of recordable answer buzzers. They’re super easy to use. You just put batteries in them and press a button and record any word into them. Recently, I partnered with Learning Resources, the company who makes the buttons, and created a pack that comes with the buttons and also activities and tips written by me, so that when people get their first pack of buttons or more later on, they have some more activities that they can do and some guidance of how to get started with their dogs. That’s all really easy to find on Amazon. It’s called the “Talking Pet Starter Set.” And what’s really nice about the buttons is you can just keep adding more if you want to. They come in packs of four buttons.
Q: Are you still teaching children to communicate, or have you completely turned your focus on Stella?
A: I’m not doing one-on-one therapy anymore. I reduced my hours and then stopped when I was really getting into writing the book. I feel like this whole experience has propelled me toward a new way to teach about speech therapy and AAC. I’ve always absolutely loved working with kids, but I always wanted to be able to teach about this on a broader scale. I just didn’t know how that was going to happen. Now this is such a special opportunity to really educate the masses about AAC language, speech therapy, and take a subject that is normally so niche and help it become really mainstream and understood.
Q: Stella knows 48 words, but are you still adding words?
A: I don’t think we’ve reached the threshold yet. I’m curious about when she’ll plateau. Every word that we’ve introduced so far, she’s still learning. I’m intrigued because there have been dogs who have been documented to know over 1,000 words, and some dogs have learned several hundred words. I’m thinking if dogs can understand upward of 1,000 words, does that mean they would also be able to say that many words if they had access to them?
Q: How has your relationship changed with Stella now that she can articulate so well?
A: I think we have a very different relationship than most pet and pet owners. Before I even got into teaching Stella words and adding vocabulary for her, I was always thinking why is it that dogs would have to do what we say all the time? We’re giving them commands, and they’re never able to say back to us. What if they want us to come or what if they don’t want to do something right now?
I feel with her ability to use words, we have more of an equal relationship than a lot of pets and pet owners. I really take into consideration her wants and needs and thoughts. And I also just feel like I understand her so much better too. I understand what’s important to her. I understand when things are tough, when changes in routines are difficult, when she’s upset, when she’s really happy. So, I just think we have such a greater understanding of each other because we have this shared language.