Great Britain

Speech therapist taught pooch to say 48 words – now get your dog to do it

CHRISTINA HUNGER has the world’s first talking dog.

But we’ll have to take her word for it – we couldn’t get Stella, her chocolate-brown Catahoula, on the dog and bone to confirm it.

Stella has an amazing vocabulary of 48 words thanks to Christina, a 27-year-old former speech therapist who is a real-life Dr Doolittle.

She has taught her dog to “speak” using a board with ­buttons that relate to specific words.

And, naturally, we were desperate to hit Stella with some of the important questions of the day.

You know the type of thing. What are Germany’s chances in the Euros?
“Ruff!”, maybe.

What’s the one thing Northern Ireland wants? “Sausages!” of course. And what’s the outside of a tree made of? “Bark.”

But it turns out that Stella is a lot smarter than that.

After painstaking training, she presses buttons to say certain words at the right moment.

It has taken three years to build up her 48 words.

She doesn’t only say “play”, “eat” and “walkies” as you might expect.

The pooch can string words together into phrases — and can even express feelings.

In one incredible moment, she said: “Christina, come play. Love you.”

Following our story this week that Peggy the border collie has learned sign language, it’s not only the kids you will have to be careful around when you want to keep something secret.

Thousands of people around the world are teaching their pets to communicate following Christina’s method, detailed in her book How Stella Learned To Talk.

And it is not just young pups. Christina’s followers have proved you can teach an old dog new tricks. Cat owners have also adapted speech boards for their own furry pals, whose intentions are often more mysterious.

In an exclusive interview, Christina, from Illinois, in the US, tells The Sun: “I want to help other people teach their own dogs. I didn’t want this to be just me and Stella. I want to spark a movement.”

The idea came to Christina when she bought Stella as a puppy in March 2018.

She worked helping children who spoke very little learn how to communicate verbally, and one of the tools she used was a board with buttons that could be programmed to vocalise certain words.

She then reasoned that a dog was ­capable of making it work as well.

Research has shown canines don’t only follow human commands due to the tone of voice. They understand the meaning of some words too.

Christina, who had a dog called Wrigley when she was a child, recalls: “I didn’t have the idea that dogs could talk until I was a speech therapist.

“But I do remember thinking how commu- nicative Wrigley was. I wondered what she was thinking, what she was trying to say to us, what message was she trying to get across?”

Christina could see Stella reacting to what she and her husband Jake, 31, were saying. The young dog would head towards the back door when either of them said “outside”.

Two months after getting the puppy, Christina ordered the communication board for Stella and installed a single green buzzer.

The first word she programmed was “outside”, so Stella could let them know when she needed to use the garden. Christina positioned the button by the back door, pressed it and said the word “outside” to reinforce the message. She later added separate buzzers for “water” and “play”.

For a month, Stella did not play ball. She did not press the button when she needed a wee, wanted a drink or was looking for fun.

If Stella looked at the button board while waiting to use the grassy ­outside loo, Christina demonstrated what to do by pushing the button herself.

Soon the dog started barking at the buzzer then gazing at the door handle.

When Stella started swatting at it one day, Christina and Jake urged her on, believing she would hit the “outside” button.

But she didn’t quite manage it — and instead left a puddle on the floor.

Christina knew the mistake was her own, not the three-month-old puppy’s.

Then, at the end of April 2018, Jake heard Stella hitting the “outside” ­button.

Christina went down to open the door and the dog answered nature’s call.

Christina says: “When Jake told me she’d said it for the first time — and then when I actually saw her say ‘outside’ a couple of times in a row — it was thrilling. I wondered what she could achieve next.

She had learned how to use her first word in just one month. That’s pretty impressive.”

Next she taught Stella to say “water” when her drinking bowl was empty and “play” when the couple weren’t giving her the attention she craved.

Once she had mastered those concepts buttons were added for “eat”, “love you”, “no”, “good”, “Stella”, “Christina” and “Jake”.

When Christina first showed friends videos of what Stella could do, most of them thought it was a clever trick.

She says: “People mostly thought I was training her to say something on command. Or I would hold up a treat and she would say ‘eat’. But that was never it.”

Friends’ doubts disappeared after they met Stella. Christina says: “When people were at our house and saw Stella ­trying to get our attention and go over to the board and say ‘play’ and pick something up and drop it, they were like ‘Oh, wow!’ ”

While most dogs give affection by licking our hands or faces — or sometimes less welcome antics — Stella has the wherewithal to put it in words.

Jake was about to take Stella for a walk when she said via the board: “Christina, come play. Love you.”

“I was so touched,” Christina remembers now. “It was heartwarming to know what we do makes a difference to her.”

Christina says Stella’s understanding of what the couple say is not in doubt.

She adds: “She is very ­routine-orientated, so if we are taking longer to do something or a time has passed when we normally have done something, she will ask ‘When?’

“We use the responses ‘now’, ‘soon’ or ‘later’ with her. It’s cool to see that if I say we are going for a walk soon, she will just hang out by the door.

“But if I say we are going for a walk later she will go curl up on her bed and take a nap.”

Thankfully, Stella does not have constant demands. She uses the board 25 to 40 times a day.

After a US magazine wrote about Stella in November 2019, Christina’s videos started to rack up millions of views online.

Academics at the University of ­California were inspired to start a research project seeing how many dogs could be taught to “talk” in the same way.
Christina took a break from her career as a speech therapist to focus on writing the book.

She also got involved with developing a Talking Pet Starter Set, which ­features a board with four buzzers and instructions.

She says: “Everyone wants to know, ‘How do I teach my dog?’”

Now get your mutt to do it

ALL dogs are bursting with communication potential.

Narrate your dog’s actions and activities in short, simple phrases.

Examples of narration include “Stella eat”, “play toy”, “Stella Christina walk” and “water”.

Try modelling words when your dog is communicating verbally or non-verbally.

When you see your dog pawing at the door, say: “Outside.” If your dog whines near her leash, say: “Walk.” If your dog looks at a toy stuck under the couch, say: “Help.”

Be repetitive. Aim to say a word at least five to ten times before moving on to something else.

The more often your dog hears a word in the right context, the faster it will learn its meaning.

Model emotion words when you see your dog exhibiting that emotion.

When your dog is wagging its tail, jumping in circles or playing at her favourite place, use these opportunities to model the word “happy”.

Programme words into your device that occur frequently and are relevant to your dog’s daily life.

Turn your dog’s typical activities into teachable moments. Before you take your dog outside, go for a walk, feed it, start playing, replenish water or give her belly rubs, take a few moments to say what you are doing multiple times.

Use speech and the board’s buttons to talk to your dog. Every time you use the button to say a word, you are modelling appropriate use of it.

Teach more than one word to start with. Greater exposure leads to greater learning.

Your dog probably will not learn to functionally communicate with the board overnight.

Look for small victories, such as your dog looking at the buttons, watching you use them, standing by the buttons or barking at them.

Give verbal praise any time you see your dog exploring them.

Observe how your dog already communicates. Keep an eye out for it whining, barking, pawing, wagging its tail or using her gaze to direct your attention to something.

Knowing when your dog is trying to tell you something will help you respond to its communication and determine which words to start teaching.

When you see your dog noticing your modelling or noticing the buttons, turn your interactions into a chance to teach language.

When you see your dog communicate through a gesture or vocalisation, stay quiet for at least 15 seconds. If your dog looks like it might be walking toward her buttons or is looking at them, stay quiet.

If your dog says a word, respond appropriately.

If your dog is not using words, continue responding to all her other forms of communication.

Do not withhold food, water, playtime, trips outside or anything else. Just create a minute or two for your dog to try using a word. Your dog may need cues for a little while before using words independently.

Keep providing a long pause, pointing at the button and asking a general question such as “What do you want?” Or stand near the button to support your dog’s emerging vocabulary.

Even after you’ve heard your dog’s first words, they will likely need support before using words independently and regularly.

Limit distractions in your environment and be in the moment when you are teaching your dog.

Remember, your dog is motivated to communicate. Resist the desire to offer a treat for saying a word. This would keep your dog from learning the word’s meaning.

Constantly telling your dog, “Say ‘outside’” or “Say ‘good’” will teach your dog only to say what you tell them to say, not to use the buttons for what they are thinking.

We are teaching our dogs how to use words, not training them to talk on command.

- Extracted from How Stella Learned to Talk by Christina Hunger, published by Bluebird on June 26 (£16.99)

Labradoodle not in the moodle

By Alison Maloney

I TESTED Christina’s method on my Labradoodle, Friday.

She’s nine and thinks of little other than food, so I started with four buttons: “Water”, “Want to go outside”, “Friday, walk” and “Where’s my tyre?”, her favourite toy.

All of these are words she already gives non-verbal clues for.

We started small. When she went for her water bowl and found it empty, I repeated “water?” several times and pressed the button with my foot.

Tongue hanging out, she stared at me blankly and refused to look at the blue button beside the bowl.

Similar confusion came when she rushed to the back door. Normally I’d open it, but instead I asked if she wanted to go outside, then pressed the button.

Nothing. Waited 15 seconds, as advised, and pressed again.

For days, the charade went on with a very confused pooch wondering why I was calling her inside to the word board while asking if she wanted to go outside, pointing at random plastic buzzers instead of filling her water bowl and listening to an electronic version of me saying “Friday, walk” before putting on her lead.

Finally, I tried placing Friday’s paw on the pads to make them speak. This produced mild interest, so we live in hope.

In fairness, Christina does urge us to look for “small victories”.

I reckon we’ll have Friday reciting Shakespeare by the end of the year.

David Beckham strips topless as he teaches pet dog tricks in just his pyjama bottoms

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