by blogger Francesca Giammona
S11 BIOLOGY’S BEST FRIEND: BRIDGING DISCIPLINARY GAPS TO ADVANCE CANINE SCIENCE headed by Ana Jimenez and Caleb Bryce , from SICB’s 2021 virtual, is featured in issue 1. Due to these fantastic papers and the wealth of canine research that’s exploded on the scene in the last few years we wanted to shine a spotlight on speech pathologist, Christina Hunger’s bestselling book:
Nearly every dog owner has wished that their dog could talk. Whether it was because their dog was incessantly barking for seemingly no reason, running around the house, or even just staring at them, many pet owners would love to know just what their best friends are thinking. Well, with a little bit of hard work and determination, that might now be a real possibility, and it is all thanks to Christina Hunger and her dog, Stella.
Studying with Stella
Christina is a speech-language pathologist, which is someone who can diagnose speech disorders and find alternative ways for people which speech difficulties to communicate. Oftentimes, if a person cannot communicate clearly and effectively with their voice, a speech-language pathologist can work with them to navigate a communication device, such as an iPad preprogrammed with a slew of vocabulary buttons. Someone can press a button on the device, and a voice will say whatever word the person has pressed. With communication devices, someone unable any words with their voice is able to convey how they feel, what they like, and what they need, opening up many more opportunities for them to interact with the people around them in a meaningful way. Christina saw the value and utility of these communication devices in humans, and when she brought her new puppy Stella home in 2018, she wanted to see if it was possible to adapt these communication devices so a dog could express their wants, needs, and feelings too.
The first step was finding a device that could work for a dog. Christina settled on using large buttons that could be placed on the floor so Stella could press them. She could program the buttons to say any word she wanted, and started by using words Stella was already becoming familiar with hearing, such as “outside” and “food”. At first, Stella did not know what to make of the buttons, and did not use them at all. But after a while, with Christina’s persistence in modelling how to use the buttons for Stella, she eventually started to use them to label activities, or when she wanted to do certain things. Now, Stella is a word pro, and can use over 30 words effectively. She can say if she likes an activity, if she needs help, or if she wants Christina to do something with her. Stella can say her own name, and can distinguish if something is happening in the present or is going to happen in the future. Stella and Christina have become a model for how humans can help our pets communicate, and highlight what our pets are truly capable of.
Practicing with your Pup
Christina has written a book about her journey with Stella titled “How Stella Learned to Talk: The Groundbreaking Story of the World’s First Talking Dog”. In it, she talks in-depth about her life with Stella and the moments she really saw her thriving with her communication devices. Christina also displays her passion for what she does in the book, as well as her desire to help others communicate with their animals. The biggest lessons Christina has to teach are of patience and determination. If you want your dog to follow in Stella’s pawprints, you need be willing to commit to teaching them for the long haul, even if you have a busy day or your dog is being especially difficult. Another piece of advice Christina offers is to start slow. Program buttons for your dog with words or concepts they already know.
If your dog gets very excited when you say, “walk”, make that one of their first buttons, because your dog understands that word. If they gesture to your backdoor when they need to go outside, program a button that says “outside”. Once your first buttons have been programmed, start using them yourself! Any time your dog gestures to go outside, push the “outside” button and say the word aloud. Any time you are taking your dog out for a walk, push the “walk” button right as you are about to get your dog ready for the trip. With enough time and modelling for your pup, they will hopefully begin to hit the buttons on their own.
Once your dog has become comfortable pressing a few buttons, add more! Maybe your dog is ready to learn “play” or “water” – make sure the words they learn at the start of this process are core concepts that are important to their life. Words like “ball” or “toy” might be helpful later on, but it is better for your dog to learn main ideas first before moving onto specifics. As your dog is learning, they may sometimes hit buttons that they do not mean to, and that is completely normal. React to every button push as if your dog is saying the word intentionally. If they are playing with their buttons and say, “walk”, you can take them on a walk or tell them you will go for a walk later. By making every possible opportunity a learning experience, your dog will get the hang of talking much more easily.
These tips, and many more, can be found in Christina Hunger’s book, which you can purchase via her website here. To find the specific buttons Christina uses with Stella, along with some additional tips, you can purchase her “Talking Pet Starter Set” here. Christina is very active on social media, and continues to document Stella’s progress in learning to communicate. She can be found @HungerforWords on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. Christina’s hope is that once we are able to more effectively communicate with our furry friends, we can better care for them, and help them to lead happier, more fulfilling lives.
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connect with blogger Francesca Giammona, @_fishology , PhD Candidate at Wake Forest University | Studying biomechanics of terrestrial locomotion of fishes