The day – Teaching a dog to “talk”
When my dog, Fauci, wants to go out to play, he drops a toy at my foot and hits me on the knee. Stella, a three-year-old Catahoula Blue heel mix in Chicago, is more articulate. When she’s ready to run, she says, “Park, outside, come on. “
Stella isn’t talking Martha or Scooby-Doo. She’s a real, living animal – and she “speaks” by pressing buttons that activate pre-recorded words.
Stella is an internet sensation. (No surprise.) She has nearly 800,000 Instagram followers and is now the star of a book, “How Stella Learned to Speak,” written by her owner, Christina Hunger. Online, millions of viewers can – and do – watch Stella type sentences and “converse” with Hunger, a 27-year-old speech-language pathologist. Stella can now type 48 words and a variety of phrases. She has become both an inspiration for dog lovers and a topic of debate about what dogs really understand. Stella’s accomplishments also raise questions about how we define speech.
Given the title of his book, Hunger’s position on the issue is clear. Hunger, whose day job involves working with children with delayed language development, is a strong advocate for enhanced and alternative communication (AAC), expression through non-verbal means (think of the device activated by Stephen Hawking’s eyes), and she used her experience with children to teach Stella.
In Stella’s early childhood, Hunger said in an interview, she noticed “these surprisingly similar language milestones that kids show just before they can say words, and I had this light bulb moment:” Wait a minute. a second. Do they have the ability to say words, just in a different way – not with verbal speech? ‘”So she started using the same tools she used with children – modeling words, for example, by recounting an action (“look outside!”) and then pressing a button on a communication board that said the word “outside”.
She repeated the process for a few hours a day, until little by little Stella began to associate an action with a word. It took about a month for Stella to learn her first word: “outside”. Over time, Stella began to put words together into sentences, even going so far as to express emotions like “love” and “crazy”. Hunger believes she is the first person to teach a dog to “talk” using augmented communication.
Hunger’s book does not read as an erudition but rather as the memory of an experience and a relationship. He also includes tips, and if you’re serious you can buy communication board starter kits from his website (also T-shirts that say “Believe in the potential”); part of the proceeds will be used to purchase communication devices for children.
Q:. Some people might say that barking and other canine behavior is talking too. What are your thoughts on this?
A: It is definitely a form of language. Communicating with gestures and vocalizations like barking are all language milestones that occur before words. This is something that many people might not necessarily know unless they are in the speech therapy field: there are so many linguistic milestones that occur before words, and there are so many ways to do it. ‘express language – you can use a gesture to express a concept, you can write a word, you can say a word verbally. Everything is still language.
Q: This raises a sort of philosophical question: what is speech?
A: In my field, I would say verbal speech is how you and I communicate now. We say speaking is a way for someone to use words – it can be a medium of communication, sign language, verbal speech.
Q: Do you work with cognitive scientists or animal behaviorists?
A: Personally, I don’t work with anyone, but the research started because of what I did with Stella. It’s amazing to see all these other professionals interested and just take what I’ve done and run with it.
Q: One of the most intriguing aspects of Stella’s “speech” is the expression of her feelings and emotions. How did you get her to do that?
A: I decided to add “happy” and “crazy” when I noticed how she communicated her emotions non-verbally. When I saw how well Stella had these non-verbal communications – whining, twirling her tail – for these emotional states all I did was add a word to them, so every time she showed these emotions through his bodily gestures, I modeled a word. Wagging my tail and smiling, I modeled the word “happy, happy” – to put a word to the gestures she was already showing.
Q: How do we know what Stella really knows? ?
A: It’s the same with children when they are developing language. It is through models that children use in their language and in their speech and by knowing the context and the environment. When a toddler says, “Monkey daddy! Does that mean “Daddy, look at the monkey”? Or: “Daddy, let’s sing the monkey song”? Or: “It’s the monkey daddy”? You don’t know unless you know the child and understand what he has seen and heard during the day and how you interact with each other. It takes a lot to know the situation and know the modes of communication.
Q: What are some of the misconceptions about your job?
A: I think one is that since I’m giving Stella a way to say words, I’m removing her natural forms of expression. But it’s just the complete opposite of what’s happening. Using words is just one way she expresses herself. She is incredibly expressive in all of her natural forms – and now also in words. It is also expressed, for example, by barking, wagging its tail, pawing and turning its ears. This is also very interesting, because with humans, research has shown that the use of AAC devices does not take away from the development of verbal speech, but helps in the development of verbal speech. People were once afraid that the introduction of an ABA device would prevent children from speaking. But we’ve found that when kids are successful in communicating in one area, it goes in all areas. And that’s something I see with Stella. She is so successful and so many ways to communicate that all forms of communication are amplified.
Q: One review I’ve seen is that Stella might press buttons because she knows something good might happen if she presses the ‘right’. How do you respond to that?
A: I never gave him treats for pushing buttons. My only answer is to show her the natural meaning of the word she is pressing. It comes down to understanding its patterns. When she says “eat” in the morning at mealtime and in the evening again at mealtime, that makes sense – she doesn’t use it constantly, haphazardly throughout the day.
Q: What advice would you give dog owners who want to try this out at home?
A: The first step is to notice how your dog is already communicating. So when your dog is gesturing for something, you can relate what he is doing with the word. Before introducing pimples, dogs need to hear the words and understand them before they “say” them.