When Christina Hunger is curious about what her dog, Stella, wants, she just asks her — or, more often, Stella simply tells her: “Come walk.” Or “Stella eat."
How? Hunger, a speech-language pathologist, has affixed to a board on her floor several dozen programmable buttons with words recorded on them. Stella has learned to press the appropriate buttons with her paw in order to express her feelings and desires.
Hunger writes about Stella's jaw-dropping achievements in a new book, How Stella Learned to Talk: The Groundbreaking Story of the World's First Talking Dog (May 4). She describes how she came up with the idea in 2018, soon after she and her then-boyfriend (now-husband) Jake adopted an adorable Catahoula (a breed from Louisiana) puppy they named Stella. While working with children who have limited verbal speech abilities, Hunger often used what's known in her field as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), which incorporates adaptive tech for language development, similar to the programmable buttons. Maybe Stella could learn the same way, Hunger thought.
Turns out she could — in a big way.
It was remarkable enough when Stella learned to press the “water” button when she was thirsty, but then the puppy began using it when she wanted to go to the beach — a different kind of water. She later pressed “water” when she saw Hunger watering her plants. More recently, Stella got wet playing in the snow, came inside, and said “water."
Stella also uses “love you” to express affection, and has learned other conceptual words, like “good.” She's even said, “Good Jake walk,” after Jake took her for an extra-long walk.
"Stella tells us when she doesn't like something, she tells us when she's mad, or when she wants to do something different than what we're currently doing,” Hunger said in a phone interview from her home in Illinois. “I think the complexities of [dogs'] thoughts and their desires is something that would be really surprising to a lot of people."
Stella has now learned 49 words, according to Hunger, who's built an impressive following through her site, hungerforwords.com, where you can see videos of Stella in action. Many dog lovers have written to Hunger about how they've used her methods to teach their own pups to speak.
The book explains the steps for doing so, while making clear that the teaching process can be a challenge: Hunger emphasizes that you'll need lots of patience, taking time to “model” the words (speaking them aloud to demonstrate for your dog) and pressing the buttons yourself at appropriate times. It's also important to stay attuned to the concepts your dog appears to be trying to express nonverbally when choosing which words to program into the buttons (you can find more info on the buttons she uses on her site).
We asked Hunger about her experience training Stella, and what she'd tell others who are eager to teach their own dogs to speak.
Don't use treats to teach your pup words
I never gave solid treats to reinforce her saying a word or pushing a button — unless, of course, she said “eat,” then I would give her a treat. I wanted to use only techniques that I would use with children when teaching them language. I would never give a child a fruit snack for saying “ball,” for example. I would say, “Yes, ball,” and go get a ball and start playing with it. Because you want to attach meaning to the word, and show that each word has power and what the power is with that word when you use it. So I did the same thing with Stella: Whenever she pushed a button that said a word, my response was the natural response to what that word means.
I think that's a big misconception, that dogs will only do things for food.
Consider where to put the buttons
If you're in a smaller space, I think having them in one location can be really helpful. But if you have to travel across a large house as the dog is learning, then it might be more beneficial to have those buttons in the respective locations and give your dog a chance to really get the hang of it and then move them to one board. (At the beginning you might keep the “outside” button near the door, for instance.)
Since this idea is so new in society, we're going to meet a lot of people trying different ways of setting buttons up and figure out what works best.
Start with more than one word
I initially started with just “outside,” then added a couple more words, because I had this realization that if I were teaching a child using AAC, I would start with more than one word. And having more words available led to greater learning because Stella was seeing me model words with the buttons so frequently throughout the day, instead of only when I saw that she wanted to go outside or that we were heading outside.
Talk to your dog often, modeling simple phrases
Give them the chance to learn these words by talking in a little bit more simplified utterances and slowing down your speech and really focusing on certain words. It makes a big difference.
You can teach an old dog new tricks
There have been thousands of people teaching their dogs [this method], and most of them just started with the dogs they had, so they were older. I could see it going either way, though. I could see it being easier as a puppy because it's a clean slate and you can really build a solid foundation for communication. But I can also see with older dogs, they've already had years of hearing their human say words, and they already have these solid communication patterns established. So it might be easier for them to pick up on what to do.
Different breeds may (or may not) learn differently
I think that's one of those things that will become more evident, as more and more people are teaching their dogs and more research is done. But my hypothesis is that there's going to be a range of normal in dogs, similar to how there's a range of normal in humans. Breeds might have different [ways of learning] just based on their personalities, and how they've evolved, and what they've been bred to do over the years.
Don't give up
Have patience. It's such an exciting concept that people want it to work right away. But with anyone learning language, human or animal, it takes time for them to hear the words and understand their meanings and observe what's happening in their environment. And every dog's learning will be different. So even if there are people who are trying this with their dogs and not seeing the success that they hoped for, it doesn't mean it's not possible. It just means that we might need to keep discovering more ways to teach this and find more device options as well.
Cats have the potential to “talk” as well
I haven't seen it in person, but I've seen some videos on social media of cats learning, and that doesn't surprise me at all. They're also very smart and communicative.
If she could ask Stella anything …
I think if we had unlimited possibilities, I would just love to know how we could make her life better.
Watch Stella combining words
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.