Adding a four-legged family member to any home is sure to be a day that fur moms and dads will never forget. For Christina Hunger, author of How Stella Learned To Talk, the experience wasn’t much different.
Like any new pet mom, she expected her life with a puppy to change in all the usual ways. She writes, “I expected to play with Stella, and to cuddle her. I expected to go for more walks, to watch her grow, to care for her.” What Christina didn’t expect was the overwhelming love and support she received from thousands of followers and fans when she taught her Blue Heeler/Catahoula mix puppy, Stella, to communicate with her.
As a trained speech-language pathologist, Christina used her knowledge in augmentative communication to bridge the gap between Stella’s tendencies and those of her young patients with delays in language development. Through her work with non-verbal children, Christina used Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices to help her patients say words in a different way.
To an average dog owner, it’s evident that our canine friends gain an understanding of basic terminology or commands: sit, speak, shake, rollover. Christina wondered whether dogs might be able to understand and communicate these commands in the same way as her students: using AAC devices. She put her knowledge and theory to the test and came up with a way for Stella to use this tool to speak to her as well.
What Christina created was a board of buttons, accessible by paw, labeled with various words, commands, and phrases that she and Stella use on a daily basis. Christina teaches Stella how to use each button and what it means through demonstration. By pushing, “belly” and “scratch,” and following with a nice tummy rub for Stella, she learns what each word on the board coincides with each action.
With time, Stella has learned to rely on her buttons to communicate basic life needs like, “outside,” “eat,” and “water.” She learned to tell Christina that she wanted to “walk” or “play,” and even ask Christina for “help.” And, as if we didn’t deserve dogs already, she often uses the “love you” button to give Christina a little puppy love throughout her day.
Today, Stella has a bank of more than 40 words and uses them in combinations or sequences to create near-complete sentences. Instead of “outside,” Stella tells Christina, “come outside now.”
Christina has proven that our dogs do have the skills and knowledge to communicate with their human counterparts. They can engage in complex, meaningful conversations if given the proper tools to do so! In her book, Christina outlines the techniques she used to teach Stella this means of communication and encourages other dog owners to do the same.
The relationship between Stella and Christina has become a viral internet sensation, a best-selling book, and an inspiration for pet owners everywhere to build a relationship and become more connected with their dogs. While all animals certainly bring to our lives, there’s certainly a special bond between human and dog. “My dog just invited me to come play with her,” Christina writes, “How special is that?”