How Stella learned to speak: The groundbreaking story of the world‘s first talking dog
By Christina Hunger
(260 pages, memoirs, 2021)
How Stella learned to speak is one of my favorite books published in 2021. This light but fascinating read will appeal to animal lovers, parents of young children, or anyone interested in language acquisition and verbal communication. Part memoir, part science popularization, this is the story of speech pathologist Christina Hunger, who applied the principles of (human) speech therapy to her puppy, Stella, to help Stella learn how to communicate with people. The results of their informal experiment blew me away. After reading this book, be prepared to reevaluate how you think about animal cognition and emotion.
Hunger’s interest in animal communication is no accident. In fact, his profession is to help human children learn self-expression through augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices: think touchscreen tablets with pre-typed words and phrases, which allow Hunger clients convey thoughts and feelings that they are unable to speak out loud. After acquiring the pup Stella, Hunger decided to institute a similar setup at home. Many dogs are trained to ring a bell hanging from a doorknob to request a trip outside, Hunger noted — but what if Stella needed more than a trip to the garden? It was this question that led Hunger to design a bespoke AAC device for Stella.
Through rigorous training, Stella has learned over time to express her thoughts and feelings by pressing buttons with her paws – first one word at a time, then (I promise I’m not making this up) in sentences and short sentences. It’s way beyond “sit”, “stay” and “bone”. This nice girl can actually let her humans know that she wants to go to the “park” to “play” with “Jake” because it makes her “happy.” There is extensive video evidence available on Instagram, YouTube, and Hunger’s personal website (search “Hunger for Words”). I’ll also add, for my skeptical colleagues, that Hunger makes it clear in the way she sets up and writes about this experience that Stella understands what she’s saying, as opposed to just mashing buttons with her paws. . One thing I really love about Hunger’s writing style is that it dives deep into the “how” and “why” of every decision regarding Stella’s AAC device. She seems genuinely interested in helping her readers grasp the concepts at work: why, for example, certain touchpad layouts are more helpful to language learners than others. This book is full of “takeaways” to help readers teach their own pets to use AAC.
At its heart, it’s not just a story of one woman and the seemingly miraculous communicative achievements of her canine companion, but of the uncharted depths of animal cognition. There is so much we don’t know about how other species understand the world! Hunger’s work shatters human-centered ideals, forcing us to confront an animal kingdom filled with self-reliant, thinking, and sentient individuals. While humans have assumed, all this time, that animals lack the capacity for complex expression, perhaps we simply don’t have the tools to listen effectively. The implications of this, of course, are that our animal neighbors deserve respect and dignity, and that there is far less difference between “us” and “them” than previously believed. It’s this combination of heart and brain that makes this book a “win” on so many levels.
Faithe Miller Lakowicz