Starting with a dream

Meet the main character of the story, Christina Hunger. In 2019, she started her own Instagram account to document her dream of doing what she does best: giving everyone (yes, everyone) a voice. Through her expertise, she would eventually develop an ingenious way to communicate with her dog, Stella.  

hunger4words via Instagram

Hunger received her master’s degree in speech-language pathology from Northern Illinois University before moving to sunny San Diego, where she lives with her fiancé, Jake. But the real story is how her dog is learning to communicate at a level most dogs simply can’t, thanks to her uncanny talents …

Connecting her passion with results

There’s been speculation over the years that dogs know much more than they let on. Luckily for us, inspirational people like Christina can help make the world a better place. Namely, to connect us better with our lovable furry (or fur-lacking) pets.

Christina Hunger via Facebook

It can probably be assumed Hunger had a desire and fiery passion to do this at an early age, which propelled her to realize this dream of developing a way for people to connect better with their pets, on a level no one ever thought possible.  

But what is the goal?

According to her website, Hunger ultimately wants to “teach her dog to talk.” But can this truly be achieved? We’ll get to that — from a professional dissenter — later, but first, let’s try to get to the bottom of Hunger’s passion.

Christina Hunger via Facebook

She also further mentions she believes “everyone deserves a voice.” So who can really argue against that? Especially when you take into account the fact that the animal in question is an adorable dog!

Meet Stella, the talented doggo

We all love our pets, especially the ones that comfort us after a long day at work or when we need them most in general. And Stella is certainly no exception to these characteristics. 

hunger4words via Instagram

According to Christina, the cute pup is a Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix, and has been learning talking techniques since she was only six months old. So suffice to say, it certainly helps to have a smart dog when you’re trying to teach it new tricks. 

Cuteness overload

We assume many pet owners in general are usually satisfied when their furry friends can give them happiness with just a simple cuddle. But Stella is a rare case where she can give so much more than that to her owner, as you will soon find out.

hunger4words via Instagram

And it certainly helps, too, when you have a dog with even one-tenth of the cuteness of Stella. As we say, the bigger the dog the better when it comes to cuddles! 

How breed may play a factor

As mentioned before, Stella is a Catahoula and Blue Heeler mix. And luckily for her, this may indeed play a vital role in how she’s able to learn and retain information at a surprising pace. The Catahoula part enables a strong work ethic, as Catahoulas were historically bred to work in swamps and forests.

Nagygabornet via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The other portion is the Blue Heeler (or American Cattle Dog). Known for their intelligence and cleverness, Blue Heelers make excellent guard dogs and can learn tricks quickly. It’s no wonder then that Stella is a smart girl!

A unique dog in her own right

For obvious reasons, Stella isn’t your typical dog. She’s also very lovable and intelligent in her own right. On her website, Christina has described her as “witty, happy, playful and very cuddly.” In other words, she basically has what every dog owner could possibly want: love and affection.

hunger4words via Instagram

Of course, her hobbies aren’t just limited to those, either. Stella also enjoys “sticks and friends at the dog park, chasing birds along the beach, and getting belly rubs from anyone she can.” So, she’s pretty much the perfect doggo.

Setting up the soundboard

The equipment Hunger uses for her project is called augmentative and alternative communication devices, which she uses in her home to coach Stella on a routine basis. She was quite resourceful, given she didn’t have the use of electronics courtesy of a research company or anything of that sort.

hunger4words via Instagram

In fact, you can find these on any e-commerce website, and they’re called “answer buzzers,” which come at a pretty affordable price. After buying them, Hunger attached these to a cardboard box and labeled each one with a different subject or emotion, like “bed,” “mad,” “happy,” and more.

Making the communication mat work

Perhaps one of the more clever moves by Christina was not limiting the labels of the buttons to just a few words. Indeed, she went all out and varied the buttons according to many other different words that would be important for a dog owner, like “kennel,” “all done,” along with emotions like “mad” and “happy.”

hunger4words via Instagram

Presumably, she will continue to add more buttons as time and Stella’s progression allows. This only makes sense, as only going off of one button would only stymie her communication abilities.

Starting with a different technique

Christina Hunger has been very systematic in her approach to this lifelong project. According to her blog, she addresses her dog in a way that she does with her regular vocation. “Every day I spend time using Stella’s buttons to talk with her and teach her words just as I would in speech therapy sessions with children.”

hunger4words via Instagram

Hunger continues, remarking that she doesn’t use the traditional Pavlovian technique of a raw, materialistic reward system to elicit a behavior pattern. She said, “Instead of rewarding Stella with a treat for using a button, we responded to her communication by acknowledging her message and responding accordingly.”

Other scientific technology using speech pathology

Apparently, getting dogs to talk is not a particularly new practice within the scientific community. In fact, scientists have allegedly developed a system through artificial intelligence (AI) that can translate facial expressions and vocals to determine their meaning.

Army Medicine via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

For example, one study listened in on marmoset monkeys (according to NBC News) and later on, a publication looked at the research and predicted we could have a product that translates for your pets by 2028! We’re not sure about the details, but suffice to say that would be amazing.

Giving credit where credit is due

While this technology is certainly more intricate than Hunger’s, you have to give her credit for genuinely coming up with something unique. Without the luxury of state or school funding, she set out on her own to explore the unknown regions of speech pathology, specifically for her dear friend.

hunger4words via Instagram

Indeed, you know your love for someone else is real when you devote a large portion of your life to bettering the other person’s life. Or in this case, the doggo’s life.

Scientific breakthroughs on the dog-speech spectrum

According to Wired, one emerging form of technology in terms of “animal-talking” tools of sorts has been forming, and that is a vest which the dog can wear, and they can then “say” a set of words that have been programmed into the vest, which is part of a project called FIDO.

hunger4words via Instagram

The Georgia Institute of Technology has been working on this, with the vest in question only having one word or command programmed on it. However, Christina Hunger has been taking this to new heights, considering Stella has been learning multiple words — 29, to be exact. 

Let the word games begin

Now here’s the fun part: the inevitable adventures that come with trying to communicate with your dog. One evening, Hunger described an instance where Stella was “whining” and pacing in front of the door. What was the problem? Of course, the normal inference would be she wanted to go outside …

hunger4words via Instagram

However, when Stella walked over to the soundboard mat, she pressed a combination of buttons that read “want Jake come.” After he entered the home, she ran to the mat, pressed “happy,” and rolled over for a “belly rub.” It doesn’t get more adorable than that!

Learning at a young age

Christina Hunger knew that in order to effectively coach Stella, she would have to introduce positive, repeated reinforcement from an early age. For example, before letting her dog go outside, Hunger would put a button next to the door that she would later label as “outside.”

hunger4words via Instagram

As time would press on, Stella would get better at recognizing that she had to press the “outside” button in order to exit the apartment. Nothing like good old-fashioned Freudian reinforcement.

Patience, patience, and more patience

According to Hunger’s Instagram, patience is a key factor for speech pathology in general. In this case, “beginning communicators includes giving the learner increased wait time to process what’s happening and generate a response.” 

hunger4words via Instagram

Therefore, it’s crucial the owner gives plenty of time for the subject to respond to basic stimuli with the goal that they are able to orient themselves with the speech project.

She can communicate affection, too

Stella isn’t just learning commands, either. One day, she wanted to go outside — a usual occurrence for her — and instead of opting to simply press the “outside” button, she pressed a combination of “park love you come outside!”

hunger4words via Instagram

It’s a truly fascinating progression, when you think about it. Especially when you go from executing simple words to full-on phrases. Who knows, maybe she will start communicating in coherent sentences? Only time will tell.

Even when she wants to eat

There was another instance when Stella pressed the button indicating she wanted to eat. But before that, she said, “now ball, ball now, no.” To Hunger’s amazement, Stella then made a gesture toward the ball-thrower toy, almost implying that she was indeed referring to the toy.

hunger4words via Instagram

She then tapped the button that said “eat” instead. It’s also truly astounding to watch this intelligent animal pick and choose which buttons she wants to press.

Not just limited to the home

Of course, Stella’s custom soundboard isn’t just limited to being indoors. The pair often take it out of the home when they go to parks or dog-friendly places. This leads to the assumption, though, that other nearby dogs would probably take part in the word-learning exercise.

hunger4words via Instagram

Imagine if all the dogs in the world could talk. It’s probably safe to say the world would be a better, happier place. Or would it be chaos? We suspect we’ll have to wait until the future gives us a better answer.

True love

We all love our fair share of pets. And that certainly doesn’t take anything away from all of the other pet owners out there. But suffice to say, it can be concluded the love shared between Christina Hunger and Stella is definitely special.

hunger4words via Instagram

In an Instagram post, Hunger mentioned how Stella had pressed a combination of buttons that said “Eat no” before pressing buttons saying “All done walk happy walk happy want.” Afterward, she went over to the door and pressed, “Stella bye love you.” It seems that Stella’s capabilities are always improving!

Delivering a clear message

As humans, we will often change our wording in a given sentence to better communicate our desired effect in a conversation, or if we’re misunderstood. Imagine the casual introvert trying to get the word out; now try picturing a dog doing the same. It’s a tough venture!

hunger4words via Instagram

In this example, Stella started a complex phrase progression to indicate what she wanted. Initially, she told her owner to “come play,” then — after her owner did nothing — she said “outside play love you.” Then she topped it off by pressing the word “park.” The humanlike resemblance is definitely scary.

Getting particular about what she wants

Christina continues to introduce new words and combine other ones to reveal that Stella has increasingly complex requests. For example, when Christina introduced the words “on” and “off” to the soundboard, it was to communicate whether she wanted to get off the bed, couch, or to refer to her collar.

hunger4words via Instagram

But as time wore on (and after Christina introduced the word “leash”), Stella would make more complex requests, including when she would say “leash leash collar want,” which indicated she wanted both her collar and leash before leaving for a walk.

The importance of starting off the day well

We all can relate to animals in more ways than we know. And the same can be said about Stella, too. According to Christina, Stella would normally sneak into their bed after they’d fallen asleep; but that was about to change.

hunger4words via Instagram

One day, instead of going about her usual nightly plan, Stella remained in her bed for the entirety of the night. The next morning, she pressed the buttons “good Stella” and plopped over for a good old-fashioned belly rub.

Teaching her secret to other doggos

Who would’ve thought these techniques could be passed on to other dogs? To be sure, their ability to learn and retain new words and phrases probably depends — to some degree — on the breed. 

hunger4words via Instagram

Enter Maisie, who is characterized as an “adopted Boxer/Border Collie puppy” by Hunger’s parents. In the picture, she’s trying to learn — albeit on a much simpler level — one word: “play.” Of course, this should be pretty easy, given every dog presumably likes to play around.

So can she actually ‘talk’?

A former self-described cognitive psychologist, Jane Hu, “wondered what’s actually happening in these videos.” In an interview with Slate, she further states that getting animals —especially primates — to talk has been a common practice among scientists for years. 

hunger4words via Instagram

And while Stella may press a button to indicate she knows the word, there may be much more going on beneath the surface that we don’t see, according to Hu, which indicates she’s not truly learning the words in a rhetorical sense.

More about humans than her abilities?

The article goes on to suggest there is a distinct difference “between Stella’s button pushing and actually understanding language in the way that humans do.” She then compared a lyrebird (shown below) copying a human saying the word “timber,” but not knowing its actual meaning.

Brian Ralphs via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Overall, she stresses the importance of thinking “about the myriad ways it (animal behavior) can be explained.” Either way, we’ll take her advice with a grain of salt, as the saying goes.

What do scientists think?

There has been a lot of speculation on this front: Can dogs ever get to a point of forming coherent sentences, and therefore, interface on a higher, unprecedented level with human beings? The answer is quite convoluted, since the resolution could implicate nanotechnology.

USAID Indonesia via Flickr

According to BT, this new technological leap could involve “implanted devices (that) will make animals cleverer than they are today, or give them the ability to speak to us in our own language.”

How far away is this technology?

Per the publication, this capability may not be as far off as you may think. In fact, scientist Dr. Pearson — in response to findings from The Big Bang Fair — stated this kind of technology may be available (presumably at an inflated price point) as soon as 2050.

Fortuna Design via YouTube

Imagine a world where you could converse with doggos … the conversations would probably be centered around basic things at first — food, playtime, etc. — but over time, who knows what the possibilities could be?

Ways to see whether your dog is trying to talk with you

According to WagWalking.com, there are multiple ways to tell whether your doggo is trying to either get your attention or talk to you. The first sign is body language. This can come in the form of growling, barking, whining, howling, or whimpering. But there are many other signs, too.

little_pickle_dachshund via Instagram

In “bark language,” there are many different variations that would indicate your dog is trying to talk or express some form of emotion. Some of these could include “monotonous barking” (boredom), “greeting barking” to say hello, and many more.

So what can we do in the meantime?

A study done at the University of Lyon in Saint-Etienne, France, concluded that dogs basically retain some form of verbal comprehension when they are puppies. This seems to diverge as they get older, with less exuberance to learn new words. 

Claire Adenroth via NPS

So, as mentioned before, it becomes imperative that we all try to instill vocabulary learning in our lovable furry pets at the youngest age possible. If we do that, we may see results in the future.