Therapyworks Logo@2x 1.png

How Speech Therapy Broke the Interspecies Communication Barrier

Dog Looking At Hunger For Words Buttons

AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) devices are commonly used to help children with speech disorders communicate, and a tool that speech therapist Christina Hunger often uses. But it wasn’t until she adopted her dog Stella, a Catahoula Blue Heeler mix, that she found how impactful AAC devices could be in her personal life.

When Hunger adopted Stella, she quickly began to notice that her new dog was showing signs commonly seen in human speech development. As she says in her book, How Stella Learned To Talk, “Stella approached her dishes and pawed her water bowl… …in only two days of living here, Stella learned what each dish was for. She even gestured by pawing her dish to let me know that she needed more water. Her communication was already so clear.”

Hunger began to compare Stella’s communication to that of toddlers and realized that if Stella were a child, she would be nearing the time when she would start to speak her first words. But, of course, Stella couldn’t talk – could she? Hunger began to investigate ways that she could give her dog a new way to communicate. Stella wouldn’t be able to use a traditional AAC device, but Hunger was inspired by a method called ‘switch scanning,’ where children with motor limitations can push a larger button instead of a small icon on the AAC to trigger the word. She ordered a set of “Recordable Answer Buttons” and recorded the word ‘outside,’ beginning to press it every time she took Stella outside.
After a week, Stella was not showing any progress. Determined, Hunger recalled how some of the children she worked with often learned better when they had access to more than one word and programmed the words ‘play’ and ‘water.’ She continued modeling, and eventually Stella began to interact with the buttons, first by glancing at them in an attempt to get Hunger to press them, and then eventually by pawing and barking at her buttons, but it wasn’t until a month after Hunger had adopted Stella that she pressed her first button. Her communication was clear: after pressing the button that said ‘outside’ and being let out, she went to the bathroom, was brought back inside, pressed the button again, and began to play outside after she was let out again.
Soon, Stella began to show that she not only was able to press the button to convey her needs but also to comment on what was happening around her. She said water once when Hunger was watering plants, even though her water bowl was full, showing that she was aware of what was happening.

Stella continued to learn more words, and use the buttons more often. She learned when in the day each event was, saying words like “eat” only when it was the time of day when she typically ate or “beach” during the time when Hunger would take Stella to the nearby dog beach, and even noticed when these routines were disrupted, leading to her first two-word phrase, which occurred when Hunger hadn’t fed Stella yet, as they had gone to the beach first. “Eat no,” Stella said. Those words became the first of many two-word phrases.

There were struggles that occurred while Hunger was teaching Stella to talk, particularly when Stella moved with Hunger and her boyfriend to San Diego and when Stella had trouble transitioning from one button set-up to another, but she continued to learn. She has since used three, four, and even five-word phrases by combining forty-five words, and can answer and ask questions, participate in conversations, and talk about her surroundings. Hunger and Stella’s breakthrough in interspecies communication shows that everyone, human or dog, deserves the chance to speak their mind.

Learn more about Stella, The World’s First Talking Dog, and how you can communicate with your dog at the Hunger For Words website.

Share This Post