Over a year into the pandemic, your bookshelves may be so crowded with books that you can’t imagine adding another. But a 3-year-old dog named Stella will have you rethinking that.
Not familiar with the brown pup with a white belly, a mix of Catahoula and Australian cattle dog? She’s quite the social media sensation, with 788,000 followers on Instagram, 101,000 followers on YouTube and 28,000 followers on Facebook, and now there’s a book dedicated to all that she’s learned in her short life. Stella can communicate with humans using a device created by her owner, Christina Hunger.
In “How Stella Learned To Talk,” Hunger, a speech pathologist and Aurora, Illinois native, takes us through her journey teaching Stella how to talk via augmentative and alternative communication. AAC is a tool that gives people with severe speech delays or disorders the ability to say words through another medium. The skills and tools she used to help children communicate, Hunger has applied to Stella’s communication development.
“All I wanted was to be able to share this story in its entirety and help people see Stella’s communication from my lens as a speech therapist,” Hunger said.
She programmed “recordable answer buzzers” with words like “play,” “outside” and “water,” then added “walk,” “bye,” “help,” “no” and “come.” These days, Stella knows and uses 48 words or phrases (including “love you”) on a board on which where she communicates with her owners. She can combine up to five words to create unique phrases, ask and answer questions, express her thoughts and feelings, make observations and participate in short conversations. For example, Stella used the phrases “help, beach, love you” to ask her owners to take her to the beach. She then pressed the buttons to make the phrases “love you, water” and stood next to her beach collar.
And this all started when Hunger asked what would happen if she tried the language interventions with her puppy that she used with her young human clients at a clinic in Omaha, Nebraska.
In the book, Hunger draws on her language techniques to take readers through major life shifts with Stella at her side, concluding every chapter with takeaways for those who want to teach their dog to communicate. Hunger said she’s received thousands of emails from pet owners with questions about her “Hunger” method, which she hopes the book answers.
“I wanted people to understand the whole story because I think when there’s something so new and groundbreaking like this, you have to be in the person’s perspective and understand how it came to be what it is now,” Hunger said.
“I wanted this full story that showed my perspective, and all of the steps teaching her and how I was processing it, and what I was comparing this to and human language development,” she said. “But I also knew that I wanted to help people teach their own dogs, and so that was the goal from the start to find a happy medium and a good balance between those.”
Not to give spoilers, but there are scenes in the book that will have pet lovers and those who have never owned pets smiling: such as Stella saying “bye” to Hunger’s guests to usher them out the door since it was past her bedtime. The scenes, coupled with fundamentals about speech and how we learn, are engaging.
We talked with Hunger, a Northern Illinois University graduate, before the release of her book to find out more about Stella and Hunger’s developing relationship and how families can form a stronger bond with their furry family member. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: Given the pandemic, your tips could be something fun to engage the whole family. Was that the plan for the release of the book?
A: It’s kind of funny how it ended up working out with the pandemic because now there’s just so many more dog owners in the world, because so many people adopted pets in their home. I think the book will have an even bigger impact now.
What I wanted was to show people what’s possible (in) this whole new era of interspecies communication. Since it came out, people from around the world have started teaching their own dogs; some people have started teaching cats. And I’ve seen people try with some other animals too. It’s so exciting to see this enthusiasm, curiosity and empowerment that people can just try something and see how it goes, and see what they discover.
Q: You and Stella met when she was weaned. Is it easier to teach a young dog tricks versus an older dog?
A: It’s definitely possible to teach older dogs. A lot of people who have seen this and have immediately started with their pets who are older have had success. I think for my personal journey with Stella, it really helped that she was a puppy because this was brand new, and I was just taking it step by step. I did see Stella as like a blank slate.
Q: Can the average person build a communication device for their pet on their own?
A: I started by buying a box of recordable answer buzzers. They’re super easy to use. You just put batteries in them and press a button and record any word into them. Recently, I partnered with Learning Resources, the company who makes the buttons, and created a pack that comes with the buttons and also activities and tips written by me, so that when people get their first pack of buttons or more later on, they have some more activities that they can do and some guidance of how to get started with their dogs. That’s all really easy to find on Amazon. It’s called the “Talking Pet Starter Set.” And what’s really nice about the buttons is you can just keep adding more if you want to. They come in packs of four buttons.
Christina Hunger’s dog, Stella, plays at Gregory Island Dog Park on April 21, 2021, in North Aurora. Hunger is a speech-language pathologist who developed a system for her dog to “talk” to her.