PETS

A Speech Pathologist Has Taught Her Dog How To Speak Real Sentences With A Custom Soundboard

by Angela Andaloro

Many pet parents wish their fur babies could talk. Sure, they can communicate with us through barks and meows and whines and howls.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know what they’re really saying, though? One dog mom has taken a step toward making that a reality. Christina Hunger is a 26-year-old speech pathologist. She’s devised an adaptive soundboard to help her 18-month-old dog, Stella, communicate her needs, thoughts, and feelings.

Whenever Stella, a Catahoula blue heeler mix, wants to “talk” to Christina, she uses the soundboard. Christina has recorded a number of words and phrases and programmed them to buttons.

Stella simply steps on the buttons to communicate. Christina developed the system based on adaptive devices she uses with some of her 1- and 2-year-old clients to help them communicate.

It’s taken some work to get Stella familiar with the board, but Christina is amazed at the progress she’s already made. She’s been using the device since Stella was 8 weeks old and says her vocabulary is currently similar to that of a 2-year-old.

Christina Hunger is a 26-year-old speech pathologist with a passion for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). While Christina usually works with 1- and 2-year-old humans, she took one of the methods she uses with them and applied it to her dog, Stella.

Stella was 8 weeks old when Christina began teaching her how to “talk.” The Catahoula-blue heeler mix uses an adaptive device that functions like a soundboard to communicate with her owner.

Christina recorded a number of words and programmed special buttons so that when the buttons are stepped on, they play the word. When Stella wants to communicate, she presses buttons to produce her desired words.

Christina has been amazed to see what Stella comes up with. One day, she was pacing in front of the front door. Christina thought she needed to go out, but Stella used the board to communicate “Want” “Jake” “Come.”

Christina’s fiancé, Jake, came home a few minutes later. Stella ran over to her board and pressed “Happy” before rolling onto her back to get belly rubs from her second favorite human on his arrival.

“I’m in constant amazement and shock,” Christina told People. “Every day she says something cooler than she said the day before.” Christina tracks Stella’s progress on her blog, Hunger for Words, and Stella’s own Instagram.

Today, Stella is 18 months old. She knows at least 29 words. The pooch can also combine up to five words to make a phrase or sentence. “The way she uses words to communicate and the words she’s combining is really similar to a 2-year-old child,” Christina noted.

Not only is the work really exciting for Christina, but she says that Stella has also really benefited from being able to express herself. She recalls that when they first started working on words, Stella was elated at one word in particular.

Christina recalled Stella repeatedly hitting the “Walk” button. “I didn’t realize how much she was waiting to say it,” Christina said. She could really sense Stella’s relief from just being able to use that word.

Another favorite word of Stella’s is “Beach.” Lucky for Stella, Christina and Jake moved closer to the beach. While a previous move had stressed her out, she fared better this time around when she could communicate.

Christina is dedicated to continuing her work with Stella. She’s curious to see just how much she can grow the playful pup’s vocabulary. Eventually, she’d like to teach other dogs the same skills and see how it changes their quality of life.

She’s also intrigued to keep seeing how Stella’s use of words and gestures continues to evolve as she can communicate more. For example, Stella now uses both her left and right paws to hit the buttons, where previously she used only her right paw.

It may seem like a small change, but Christina noted that it’s similar to how humans can type with two hands. She also noticed that Stella rarely hits any of the buttons by accident now, while she previously struggled when her buttons were first set to the board.

“I think how important dogs are to their humans,” Christina mused. “I just imagine how much deeper the bond will be.” If Christina and Stella are any indication, it will certainly make the bonds between humans and their pets deeper and more joyful.