An American speech-language pathologist taught her pet how to talk to people using a clever little machine.
In 2018, Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist based in San Diego, took home Stella, the Australian Shepherd-Catahoula leopard dog mix. Already at the beginning of their acquaintance, Hunger discovered that the dog’s communication attempts were strikingly similar to those made by toddlers who cannot yet speak.
Hunger regularly uses augmentative and alternative communication tools with her patients. AAC is a form of communication that creates a connection between a transmitter and a receiver without speaking. AAC tools include sign languages, gestural languages, picture cards, letter-boards, objects, and computer speech generation tools.
As the intelligence of dogs is on par with that of a two-year-old child, Hunger assumed that applying these methods would not be a problem for Stella either. She developed a board full of buttons on which each button plays a different word when pressed.
They started practising by Hunger or her partner saying the name of each activity involved, pressing the button, and only then focusing on action. After a while, Stella realized that pressing that button was a condition for the event or action in question to occur. At first she just barked, pushing her owners to press the button, but then she started to become more independent.
Stella started out learning just one word (“outside”) and is now up to 39 words, which she can combine into phrases of up to 5 words to express her thoughts, feelings, desires and even abstract concepts.
On one occasion, the evening walk on the beach was a little short, and as they got home, Hunger started making dinner. Stella pressed the appropriate buttons indignantly, “Water-Good! No-Eat! Play!”. That is, as you might have guessed, the puppy had really enjoyed swimming in the sea and didn’t want to have dinner yet – she would rather have played a little more.
Hunger also observed that when Stella was excited, she used the buttons differently than when she was calm. In an heightened emotional state, she tends to press the buttons for each instruction many more times. She once heard a strange noise from outside and trampled on “Look!” about nine times and then used the “Come out!” combination.
Stella also has an opinion on the current pandemic situation. As her time outside has been curtailed because of recent stay-at-home orders, she has been using her soundboard to convey how much she is missing some of her favorite places like beaches and parks, communicating such phrases as:
“Where where where where park?”
“Help water play love you.”
“Look park beach want.”
“Park love you.”
Of course, Stella still goes for walks, but the public places where she has the most fun, like her favorite parks or the beach, are closed. Hunger tried to explain to her what was going on, but she wasn’t sure she could make her pet understand why it all happened that way.
So she decided to show her the closed gates of the beach, and the doggy seemed to understand why they weren’t going there lately – even though she didn’t seem to like the cruel reality.
Hunger is writing a book about her experience and methodology. “I’m very excited for it to come out,” she says. “I have so much information to share…there’s so much potential. We’re just getting started.”