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Dog Learning to Talk By Using a Custom Soundboard to Speak: 'I'm in Constant Amazement'

People logo People 11/4/2019 Hilary Shenfeld
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Many dog parents already know their pets communicate with them, but what EXACTLY are they trying to say?

A speech-language pathologist with an 18-month-old dog is working to find out, and she’s already discovered that her dog Stella can literally tell her things — like she’s tired after playing and now would like a nap, or that instead of playing at this moment she would prefer to eat, and that she would like to go outside, specifically to the park.

a dog sitting on a table: Christina Hunger © Christina Hunger Christina Hunger

It’s all possible through the use of an adaptive device Christina Hunger, 26, devised to help Stella communicate not only words but her thoughts and feelings too. When the Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix wants to “talk,” she steps on buttons corresponding with words Hunger recorded and programmed into the device.

a person posing in a park: Christina Hunger © Christina Hunger Christina Hunger

And Stella is already putting her language skills to work. One day, the pup was whining at the front door and started pacing back and forth. Hunger assumed that she needed to go outside. Instead, Stella walked to her device and tapped out, “Want,” “Jake” “Come” then stood in front of the door until Hunger’s fiancé, Jake, came home a few minutes later and then Stella immediately pressed “Happy” and rolled over for a belly rub.

“I’m in constant amazement and shock,” Hunger tells PEOPLE. “Every day she says something cooler than she said the day before.”

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A post shared by Christina Hunger, MA, CCC-SLP (@hunger4words) on Oct 30, 2019 at 10:09am PDT

Hunger, who works in San Diego with 1- and 2-year-old children, many of whom also use adaptive devices that help them communicate, began teaching Stella words when the canine was about 8 weeks old. The 50-pound dog now knows at least 29 words and can combine up to five words to make a phrase or sentence.

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“The way she uses words to communicate and the words she’s combining is really similar to a 2-year-old child,” says Hunger, who documents Stella’s progress on her blog, Hunger For Words, and Instagram.

a dog lying on the grass: Christina Hunger © Christina Hunger Christina Hunger

Hunger loves knowing Stella’s thoughts, and the dog seems pleased as well. When Stella first learned to communicate the word “walk,” she acted excited and used it repeatedly. “I didn’t realize how much she was waiting to say it,” Hunger says.

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A post shared by Christina Hunger, MA, CCC-SLP (@hunger4words) on Nov 1, 2019 at 1:14pm PDT

Another favorite is “beach.” “She loves saying ‘beach.’ She was so happy and still says it very often.”

Hunger plans to continue teaching Stella new words and wants to teach other dogs how to “speak” as well.

“I think how important dogs are to their humans,” Hunger says. “I just imagine how much deeper the bond will be.”

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