Reviewed by Antonella Townsend
Finally! Someone has cracked the language barrier between us and our very best friends – dogs. Caring dog owners have always known that dogs can communicate, many of whom are fluent in dogese. But a very clever person has taught her dog to speak English via an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. That wonderful person is Christina Hunger, who alongside her partner Jake, taught Stella to talk. How Stella Learned to Talk is a memoir of their life with Stella, a Blue Heeler Catahoula cross, including a step-by-step guide to explain how she was trained.
The whole ‘talking dog’ scenario sounds bizarre but really it is quite straightforward. First, Christina is a speech therapist who works with toddlers who have significant delays in language development. As such, Christina is well versed in early language acquisition, plus she is passionate about the potential of ACC devices. An AAC device uses pre-recorded single words or phrases that can be accessed by pushing a button. Second, Christina and Jake love dogs. Mix the above with Christina’s profound observations and, before you know it, a dog is talking. Perhaps best to mention a heap of patience and persistence was also in the mix.
After moving in together, Christina and Jake decided to become dog owners again, having both grown-up with a beloved family dog. And so, the search for their new family member began. To puppy or not to puppy became the major decision. An older, house-trained, dog from a shelter seemed sensible but, as fate would have it, Christina stumbled on puppy Stella and fell in love. Not hard to understand why when you see the photographs.
With Stella newly installed into her life, Christina observed that Stella’s development paralleled her toddler clients. Dogs have a clear way of indicating, or gesturing, their needs as do toddlers. Christina posed the question: If Stella is already gesturing at eight weeks old, what other communication skills does she display that overlap with those of toddlers?
It might be worth mentioning that Christina’s mind set, regarding possible scenarios, had roots in her university speech therapy training that urged students to ‘presume competence’, to argue for their clients’ potential, not limitations.
Christina’s follow-up question: What would happen if I implemented speech therapy language intervention with my puppy? This question really started the ball rolling; she ordered ACC buttons to record words familiar to Stella. From this point the story unfolds. Christina does not stint on detail. It makes fascinating reading. It was not all plain sailing of course. But Stella’s intelligence, combined with loving owners, produced amazing results that once-and-for-all prove that dogs are capable of thought, and opinions!
At the end of most chapters, there is a section entitled: Takeaways for Teaching Your Dog. So this memoir doubles as a training manual should owners feel inspired by Stella’s example. The steps Christina outlines, and reasons for them, should be carefully read before embarking on a similar project.
Christina and Stella are now quite famous in America having featured on many television programs. Let’s hope this book sparks a new era in dog/human relations with our most loyal companions given the respect they deserve, and, hopefully legal status with accompanying rights and protection.
Apart from being an amazing memoir, Stella’s story points to the fact that our human condition is not so very different from other living beings, who have feelings and emotions just like us. This is a must-read book, even if readers are not dog people. It provides groundbreaking insight into the animal world!
by Christina Hunger
Allen & Unwin