Oh goodness, what’s not to like? A book about a dog named Stella who’s half American Cattle Dog? A book about language acquisition? A book with scientific evidence to back it up? Nice people to read about? For all the “yes” answers this book provides, I rather raced through How Stella Learned to Talk: The Groundbreaking Story of the World’s First Talking Dog, by Christina Hunger. I was pretty darned impressed and excited with all I learned.
I was not out shopping for a dog language book, but when I saw it, I had to get it. Like the author, I’ve always thought animals had a lot to say to us and were probably often frustrated that we were not doing a good job understanding their signals. Unlike me, she was a newly certified speech and language pathologist when she got her beautiful puppy and happened to work with augmentative and alternative communication methods (AAC), which allow many nonverbal people to communicate with their families and friends using technological aids.
Hunger was also curious, and when she saw the puppy going through similar developmental phases to babies and toddlers, she wondered if they could learn to communicate similarly. She uses buttons on the ground that “say” particular words, and slowly enabled Stella to build up a vocabulary.
What impressed me was when Stella began to string together words, use repeated words for emphasis, and create novel strings. That dog can talk!
This is a charming book, and you get to enjoy Hunger and her husband, Jake, as the fumble around figuring things out along with Stella. Well, they aren’t fumbling, since Hunger has the background to know things that are likely to work, just not exactly how they will work or how long it will take.
Knowing that many people will want to start working with AAC and their own dogs, there are hints for working with your dog at the end of each chapter, and they really make a lot of sense to me. I just love how she discourages the use of treats, forcing dogs to use the buttons, and other means of making them use their words. She found that Stella was motivated to communicate on her own and did better if allowed to figure things out herself.
Hunger also points out that they let the dog have an opinion, include her in decisions, and treat her as someone with an equal say in the household, even when everything she wants can’t happen. Respect for Stella has certainly led to a happy family.
That reminds me so much of how we work with horses, where we pay attention to their nonverbal “statements.”
I’m sure it would have been fun to try this with our own Stella, back when we just had one dog. I’m not sure our household is cut out for AAC, but I certainly can pay more attention to our dogs’ cues. And hey, if you’re interested in learning more, you can visit the Hunger for Words website or search for Hunger4words, their Instagram page.