Christina Hunger is a speech therapist who works with children who are having difficulty speaking. She lives with her partner Jake and their Catahoula-Blue Heeler mix dog, Stella. While Hunger may seem to have a fairly normal life, she has managed something remarkable that most people would believe is impossible. She has taught her dog to speak using a communication method she has devised.
Realizing the Possibilities
According to the New York Post, Stella was an eight-week-old puppy when Hunger first began thinking about a dog’s potential to talk. The speech therapist was completing a language assessment on a child that was almost ready to start speaking. She noticed that the child and her puppy exhibited many of the same behaviors. One example is the way that both the dog and the child cried and made physical gestures when they wanted to communicate something as they could not speak. Hunger noted that if her dog’s water bowl was empty and it wanted a drink, it would whine and shove the water bowl with her nose. Once Hunger had realized that dogs communicated in a similar way to toddlers who could not yet speak, is stated her thinking that there was a possibility that dogs could potentially learn to use words in some way. She knew that she needed to find an alternative way for dogs to communicate.
Recording the Training Process
Hunger began the process of training Stella back in 2018 when she was living in Omaha. She documented her methods and progress in a memoir called ‘How Stella Learned to Talk: The Groundbreaking Story of the World’s First Talking Dog,’ which she has had published. Not only do readers learn about Stella and Hunger’s story, but they can also learn how to train their dogs themselves.
How Hunger Taught Stella to Talk
According to Hunger, the first step to training a dog to speak is to talk to them often so that they begin to recognize words, just as you would with a small child. Hunger says that short and simple sentences are best. Often, Hunger would say just a single word at a time so that Stella could associate the word with certain situations. For example, she says ‘outside’ when it is walk time, ‘eat’ at dinnertime, and ‘play’ when getting out toys. Hunger would say each of the words around ten times so that Stella could associate each of them with different situations. The speech therapist also began to consider tools that she could use to get Stella talking. In her day job, Hunger used a variety of tools to help youngsters to communicate. Most of these are alternative or augmentative communication devices. Hunger has described them as tablets with corresponding words on buttons. Children can use the devices to communicate if they cannot speak.
Creating a Canine Communication Device
Unfortunately, such tools are too complicated to use, but Hunger wanted to use the same principles to help Stella to communicate. Therefore, she decided to create her own device and ordered some recordable answer buttons, which allow people to record a sound that will playback if someone presses the button. Hunger recorded the word ‘outside’ into the first button before placing it by the back door. She pressed this button every time they were going out for a walk so that Stella would associate the word with going outside. Hunger would also repeat the word while taking a walk as reinforcement. Next, Hunger created a button that said ‘water’ to go beside Stella’s water bowl and recorded another that said ‘play,’ which she put by her dog’s toy basket. As before, Hunger reinforced these words at the appropriate times.
Stella’s Progress with Communicating
At first, Stella’s progress was slow, but Hunger persevered. However, after a month, her progress increased. The first success was when Stella began to press the button for ‘outside.’ She then also began to use the buttons for ‘play’ and ‘eat.’ Gradually, Hunger began to add extra buttons so that Stella could communicate about a wider range of things. Within a few months, Stella was able to string several commands together. Hunger also noticed that Stella learned faster if there were simultaneous words available. According to Hunger, her experiences of training Stella, who is now three years old, have completely changed her outlook on dogs and how they communicate. She said that dogs are more observant and intelligent than people may expect, and they are capable of independent thoughts. She also believes that the process has strengthened her bond with Stella.
Training Your Own Dog to Communicate
Although Christina Hunger set out only to train her own dog, her book means that other dog owners can learn how to do the same. She has also launched a website called Hunger for Words that outlines her experiences and that people can use as a resource when training their dog. Hunger recommends choosing words that will motivate your dog, and this may differ from one dog to the next. She also says that it is best to start using general terms. For example, using the word ‘play’ is better than using the word ‘ball’ as the latter is too specific to that one toy, while the former describes various situations that involve play. Another tip she gives is to give your dog time. If your dog is noticing the button, give them some time to figure out the connection between the word and the button. Make sure you use lots of reinforcement by repeating the word as often as possible. Furthermore, Hunger points out that dog owners should do their best to respond to the dog’s requests. Otherwise, they will not see the point of pressing the button if it does not have the desired effect and rewards for them. It is particularly important to do this in the early stages.