How Stella Learned to Talk by Christina Hunger

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

If a very young puppy is intelligent and is blessed with patient, time-rich owners, it could acquire communication skills as Stella, now living in San Diego California, has successfully done.

Time is essential, but more critical is the dog, itself. Its qualities must include intelligence, attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to please and devotion to its owners. Not every dog would satisfy this list.

Christina and Jake, dog lovers all their lives, instantly were attracted to little Stella, in a litter of four. Her parents were Catahoula (Louisiana’s State dog!) and an Australian blue heeler.  Stella’s genes would suggest an intelligent, energetic, gentle and hard-working dog.

The pair were fortunate in their work schedules which allowed one to be at home constantly with Stella, an important bonding and settling strategy. Christina, as a speech pathologist, was well equipped to adapt an approach to teaching communication to Stella. Early language acquisition has myriad steps and she was aware that Stella, to ‘speak’, needed to follow these.

In the beginning, the puppy 1. Cried to get attention; 2. Turned her head to a voice; 3. Maintained eye contact; 4. Responded to ‘come here’; and 5. Quickly learned the significance of ‘NO’.

Christina’s knowledge of stroke victims and other non-verbal people’s use of Augmentative Alternative Communication, AAC, led her to consider a similar technique for her dog.

Technology has developed several AAC types but nothing suitable for a dog.  A prototype had to be devised!

With her new device, Christina found that Stella failed to react.

Progress was very slow. She introduced a button which was placed by the back door to say ‘outside’. Children, she knew, grasped this, whereas dogs relied on voice and gestures as their language base. It was a huge leap to associate a coloured button sounding to indicate ‘play’, ‘food’ ‘walk’ ‘toy’ etc.

Success at last! After countless demonstrations, the dog realised that pressing the button was the way to get outdoors.

Other buttons then had to be learned. Three words (not eat!!) were concentrated on and gradually the clever dog used ‘help’ at appropriate times. These words increased to 15, and she then was able to use phrases, such as ‘play beach’….

The amazing progress of Stella’s ability to ‘speak’, meant Christina decided to share the experience and she established the blog, ‘hungerforwords’, perfect when her surname was Hunger!

Hundreds of thousands eventually followed the astonishing progress of the little dog. She was able to ‘talk’ to a dog sitter, consider the future and make comments, such as ‘park good’.

For those wishing to teach their dog to communicate, this is a superb guide. The book is detailed, prescriptive, and a fascinating, if painstaking, study in how a dog might learn to ‘speak’. Simultaneously, it gives valuable insight into how a child acquires language and the complex steps involved.

Christina Hunger reveals that a form of language, once regarded as vital distinguishing attribute of human beings, with a skilled and patient tutor, can be enabled in a dog. The animal has very basic needs and wants so the vocabulary is small; it is a world away from being able to construct an essay on, say, ‘My Life as a Special Dog’!

Her determination to empower her dog, and her generosity in sharing her knowledge and experience with those keen to follow her approach, make this a fascinating example of how exploring possibilities can have surprising results.

Boundaries are there to be extended!

How Stella Learned to Talk

[2021]

by Christina Hunger

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 17608 7876 4

$32.99; 260pp

 

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