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Meet Stella, the dog who learned to 'speak' in sentences using a homemade communication device

"She definitely says 'outside' the most. She absolutely loves being outside," her owner, Christina Hunger, revealed.

Meet Stella, the dog who learned to 'speak' in sentences using a homemade communication device
Cover Image Source: Instagram/Christina Hunger

Stella, a 3-year-old Catahoula Blue heeler mix in Chicago, first made headlines a couple of years ago when the world came to know of her ability to "speak." Videos of the pup communicating her thoughts, feelings, and desires using a homemade communication device went viral almost overnight, making her an online sensation who now has nearly 800k followers on Instagram. Stella's rise to fame began in 2018 when her owner, Christina Hunger, a 27-year-old speech-language pathologist, noticed how her puppy's mode of communication with gestures and vocalizations was strikingly similar to "language milestones that kids show right before they are able to say words."


"I had this lightbulb moment, 'Wait a second. Dogs can understand words, shouldn't they have an opportunity to say words, just in a different way — not with verbal speech?'" Hunger told The Washington Post. This realization led her to wonder whether she might be able to teach Stella how to use words through adaptive equipment typically used to help people communicate when speaking is difficult. She set out using the same language facilitation strategies she used with kids, until little by little, Stella began associating an action with a word. About a month into their daily training sessions, Stella used her first word: "outside."


"She definitely says 'outside' the most. She absolutely loves being outside," Hunger said in a 2019 interview with CNN. Over time, Stella's vocabulary has grown to include 48 words and a variety of phrases that even help her express emotions like "love" and "mad." But Hunger believes this is only the beginning. "I think this can go a lot farther than we have discovered yet. Already she combines five words; we have conversations that take three turns — me, Stella, me," she said.


"With human language, our receptive language skills (our understanding) and our expressive language skills (our language output) are pretty equal; there's been research that dogs can understand hundreds and even upward of 1,000 words," Hunger added. "So I'm thinking if they understand these words, maybe when given the right tools, they could potentially say that many words as well. We'll see!" Explaining how she got Stella to express emotions using words, she said: "I decided to add 'happy' and 'mad' when I noticed how she was communicating her emotions nonverbally. When I saw how strongly Stella had these nonverbal communications — whining, twirling her tail — for these emotional states, all I did was add a word to it, so anytime she was showing those emotions through her body gestures, I would model a word."


"When wagging her tail and smiling, I would model the word 'happy, happy' — to put a word to the gestures she was already showing," Hunger explained. "There are times when she uses a lot of different parts of speech in a phrase together — and that's really impressive to me. Once when she and Jake [Hunger's husband] were about to go out and I was staying behind, Stella was hesitant to go to the door, and she said, 'Christina, come, play, love you.' I dropped everything and came with them. It was amazing."


According to Hunger's blog "Hunger for Words," Stella's ability to communicate using words has inspired thousands of dog parents across the world to train their pets to "speak" in the same way. Sharing some advice for such dog parents, Hunger said: "First thing to do is talk to your pet. Notice how they're already communicating and start putting words to those gestures or vocalizations that they're using. Then you get the buttons and program them with those words, use them all the time, and show your pet how to use them as well."


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