Just a few days after Christina Hunger got her new puppy, she noticed something that would change both their lives.
Hunger is a speech therapist who often works with children who have difficulty speaking. She has to coach them to move past their delays or use tools in order to help them communicate.
While sitting at her desk one day and completing a toddler’s language assessment, lightning struck. Hunger noticed that a young child on the verge of speaking showed many of the same behaviors that Stella, her 8-week-old Catahoula-blue heeler mix, was exhibiting.
For example, just like a young child, Stella cried to get attention and gestured to request action, such as when she nosed her empty water bowl.
“It was this really strong lightbulb,” Hunger told The Post. “Once I saw that, I couldn’t unsee it. I couldn’t think about anything else. It was so obvious to me that dogs just needed a different way to communicate.”
But could a dog really be taught to use words?
Hunger, then living in Omaha, set out to train her dog to do just that in 2018. She has poured her findings into a new memoir, “How Stella Learned to Talk: The Groundbreaking Story of the World’s First Talking Dog” (William Morrow), out Tuesday.
The book not only tells Hunger’s story but serves as a roadmap for dog owners everywhere about how to train their pets.
“I absolutely think any regular person with the right information and motivation could teach their dog to talk,” the author says. “Patience is probably the most important part of this. Dogs are essentially learning a second language.”
The first step is to begin speaking to your dog.
“Start by just narrating what your dog is doing in short simple sentences,” Hunger says. “That’s how they’ll learn meanings of words.”
Hunger started to say “play” whenever Stella looked down at her toy. Or she said “eat” at dinner, or “outside” when it was time for a walk. She would repeat them over and over again — at least five to ten times before moving on, in order to give the dog a chance to make the connection. The author says it’s important to notice the things your own dog is trying to tell you with its behaviors and zero in on those words.
During her day job, Hunger uses augmentative and alternative communication devices with some of her clients. They’re basically tablets containing buttons corresponding to words. Those who have difficulty speaking can push a button or a series of buttons to communicate.
Those tools are too complicated for dogs, so Hunger went online and ordered several “recordable answer buttons” — basically big plastic buttons similar to the Staples Easy Button that allow the user to record a sound which will be played back when the button is pressed.
Hunger took the first button and recorded the word “outside” into it, then placed the button by the back door.
Each time she was about to take Stella for a walk, Hunger would stop and push the button multiple times, as well as repeating the word “outside” multiple times while on the walk.
Meanwhile, she programmed two more buttons for Stella: one for “water” placed by the dog’s water bowl and another for “play” that was situated by Stella’s toy basket.
Any time Hunger or her boyfriend Jake walked by while Stella was drinking, they’d press the “water” button and repeat the word. Before pulling out toys, they’d hit and repeat “play.”
For your own dog, it’s important to choose words that “are motivating” to your animal, Hunger says. And start more generally. “Play” is better than “ball,” for example, because you can model play in lots of ways.
It’s also important to give your pooch time to figure it out, Hunger says. She advises pausing for a solid 15 seconds if your dog is noticing the button or seems to be trying to communicate.
If the animal still needs a nudge, stand by the button and point at it or tap it.
When the dog does hit the button, it’s crucial to honor that request “as much as you can,” at least early on.
Progress for Stella was slow during the first month. She eventually learned to approach the “outside” button when she needed to go outside, but simply waited for Hunger to push it.
And then finally, after a month, Stella said her first word one night.
She walked over to the door and sat down by her button, and waited patiently for Jake to take her out. When he didn’t open the door after 30 seconds, she pawed at the button until it sounded.
Jake praised her and immediately took her outside. When they returned, Stella hit the button again, and they went right back out.
Hunger was “overjoyed” that Stella had learned a new skill. “There are few better feelings than that one,” she writes.
Within a few days, Stella was using her buttons for “play” and for “water.” Though Hunger says it’s not unusual for a dog to continue needing prompts for a while, such as asking the dog, “What do you want?” when approaching a button.
Whenever Stella did hit a button, Hunger never rewarded her with treats. Dogs are “intrinsically motivated to communicate,” the author writes, and giving food will keep your dog from learning the meaning of the word.
Eventually Hunger decided to introduce new buttons for “eat,” “bye,” “come,” “no,” “love you,” “help” and “walk.” Once the buttons were placed, the author says you should keep them in the same spot.
Hunger began modeling these words in the same way as the first and discovered that Stella learned faster when simultaneous words were available. After three days, Stella began using “walk” often when she wanted to go out, and “outside” only when she needed to relieve herself.
Before long, Hunger writes, Stella’s language skills became more complex. Once when Hunger was watering her houseplants, the dog hit the water button. Eventually, Stella was able to string together multiple words, such as saying, “Christina come play love you.”
Hunger said the experience of training Stella, who is now 3, has changed the way she thinks about dogs.
“Dogs are thinking a lot,” the author says. “They feel, they have opinions. They’re so observant of their environment. They have comments about what’s happening, they have independent thoughts and ideas and are wanting to share them.” the author says.
Her insights have also changed her relationship with her pet.
“It’s much stronger,” she says. “The things we do aren’t my decisions. I take Stella’s wants and needs into consideration, as well. I want her to be able to speak for herself. It’s not just me calling the shots.”