Monday, December 13, 2021

How Stella Learned to Talk: The Groundbreaking Story of the World's First Talking Dog, by Christina Hunger

William Morrow, ISBN 9780063046863, May 2021

Christina Hunger was working as a speech pathologist for young children, in Omaha, Nebraska, when she and her boyfriend, Jake, got an eight-week-old Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix puppy. They named her Stella, and started doing what neither of them had done as adults: potty training, walks, crate training, and of course puppy proofing their home.

But as she got to know her new puppy, she noticed behaviors in Stella and in the language-delayed toddlers she worked with. The children and the puppy showed similar pre-linguistic behaviors, the behaviors language-delayed children show before they begin to use words. Christina started to wonder if Stella, exposed to the same language therapy and same type of communication device, could learn to use words to communicate her needs to Christina and Jake.

The first step was to make a device that Stella could use--one with large buttons she could easily press. Christina's original plan was to teach just a a few words, words Stella would have frequent and obvious use for. For instance, being able to "say" the word "outside" out loud, so that Jake and Christina could hear it from anywhere inside, not just seeing her go to the door when they were in the same room, would reduce the number of indoor potty accidents.

What follows is a fascinating discovery of the intelligence and adaptability of dogs, and the growth of this dog and her owners as a family, as well as Christina Hunger's own growth as a professional. Along the way, Christina and Jake each complete their professional training, and together decide to relocate from Omaha to San Diego. Stella learns the first set of words, and then the next set, learning to press the right buttons--but not just in the ways intended. She learns more words than Christina thought possible at first, and starts using them not just to request a potty break, or a walk, or playtime, but to comment on what's happening. She starts putting two words together--just as young children learn to do.

Stella will never be a college student, but her progress in learning to use her speaking device, make herself understood, and ask questions has been a major step forward in understanding how much dogs are capable of understanding. And Stella is a wonderful dog, with a great human family that's well worth getting to know. Christina Hunger also includes, at the end of every chapter, basic guidelines for applying what she's learned in teaching your dog to "talk" in the same way, if you want to undertake that.

An excellent book. Recommended.

I received this book as a gift from a friend, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

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