If your dog could talk, what do you think it would say? Speech pathologist Christina Hunger, MA, CCC-SLP decided to find out. Now, her dog Stella knows 29 words and can even form phrases.
Hunger, 26, taught her 18-month-old dog to use a special version of an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) system. These devices are often used with non-verbal children who can press one of thousands of icons representing different words to express what they’re thinking. When they push the button, the machine says the word out loud so others can understand.
When Hunger and her fiance got a puppy last year, she thought about how the Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix might use a similar device to “talk” by stepping on buttons. So she set about teaching Stella how to use an AAC when the pup was just 8 weeks old.
In a blog post, she explained that we all have multiple ways of communicating – verbal speech, gestures, facial expressions, writing, etc. That means we don’t necessarily need to be able to say words in order to express ourselves.
Dogs have expressive communication methods as well – barking, whining, growling, jumping, sighing, etc. So Hunger asked herself: “what would happen if we gave dogs a way to access the words we say to them on a daily basis?”
Since dogs can receive and respond to verbal cues from humans, Hunger tested the theory that they could communicate back with the same words via the ACC.
Hunger and her fiancee Jake started with a favorite word that nearly all dogs recognize: outside.
Then, they built a button that said the word out loud when stepped on. Each time they said “outside” and let Stella out the door, they would hit the button, hoping that Stella would learn that she could press it as well when she wanted or needed to go out.
“After a few weeks of modeling, Stella showed us she was aware of what was happening. When I would ask ‘Outside? Stella, want to go outside?’ she began looking down at the button, looking up at me, and barking.”
Then they incorporated other words that Stella might need to communicate: eat, water, play, walk, no, come, help, bye, and love you.
“Instead of rewarding Stella with a treat for using a button, we responded to her communication by acknowledging her message and responding accordingly. Stella’s voice and opinions matter just as our own do.”
Eventually, Stella didn’t need cues from humans in order to use her buttons.
“If Jake and I were distracted, Stella began saying “play” repeatedly until we threw her toy or engaged in tug of war. Stella would walk to her water bowl, notice it was empty and say “water.” If we had finished dinner and didn’t mention going for a walk yet, Stella would say “walk” multiple times while staring at us. If her toy was stuck under the couch, she would say “help” and stand right where she needed Jake or I to look. When our friends were putting their jackets on or were standing by the door, she would say “bye” to them.”
Eventually, Stella got so good at using her buttons, she used them to comment on situations instead of just request things. For example, she would press the “water” button when Hunger was watering plants (but her own water bowl was full).
Then, something even more incredible happened – Stella started creating phrases out of the words.
“Stella would say ‘no eat’ or ‘eat no’ if we took too long to feed her, ‘walk no’ if we didn’t take her for a walk, ‘eat play’ to request her toy filled with food, ‘help come’ when she needed help in another room.”
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Hello there everyone!! 🤗 Welcome to the Hunger for Words community! I’m THRILLED you’re here! I feel completely honored by this outpouring of enthusiasm and inspiration ✨✨ Here is a fun Stella series to kick off this new chapter! • Jake and I were discussing taking Stella to Petco. She was certainly listening…! • Video 1: Stella said “Goodbye outside.” This is the third time in the past few weeks that Stella has combined “good” and “bye” to say “Goodbye” instead of just “bye”! • Video 2: Jake said he wanted to hang our spice racks first, started the project, and Stella told him, “Later Jake” 😂😂 (Translation: Do that later, I want to go!) • Video 3: Stella came full circle with her message and told us she was REALLY ready to leave by saying, “Bye bye bye good bye!” (Looks like we have ourselves a little @nsync fan 😜) • I hope you all have a great day!
And Stella was able to communicate her annoyance with her parents as well:
“When Jake and I did not feed her dinner this early she said, “love you no” and walked into the other room.”
While this kind of sophistication communication seems unlikely from an animal, Hunger reminds readers that we’ve long known that the average dog understands around 165 words.
“Cognitively and linguistically speaking, dogs have been compared to an average two-year-old human.”
Not content to stop at a few dozen words, the experiment continues.
Be sure to scroll down below to see more footage of Stella in action.
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