Christina Hunger Taught Her Dog to Talk, Now She Wants to Help You Start a Chat with Your Pet
The first thing people want to know about Stella, the now-famous dog who can "talk," is if they can get their own pooch to chat with them too.
According to Christina Hunger, it's possible, and it all starts with a simple concept: if you want your dog to talk to you, talk to your dog. Hunger would know; she is the one who caught the world's attention after she discovered a way to have two-way conversations with Stella, her Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix.
"Dogs can understand words," Hunger tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview. "They just need a different way to say words."
Using some of the same techniques from her work as a speech-language pathologist helping toddlers struggling to communicate, Hunger created a customized soundboard for Stella to let the pooch convey her feelings and started training Stella to use the tool when she was just a puppy. When Stella wants to "talk," she steps on the soundboard's buttons that playback words Hunger has pre-recorded.
In 2019, Hunger's Instagram (@hunger4words) and a PEOPLE story about Stella's skills introduced Stella to a global audience, setting off a huge wave of excitement and interest in the possibility of gaining a deeper understanding of our pets through new forms of communication.
There was so much fascination and so many questions that Hunger decided to detail her whole journey in a new book. Out May 4, Hunger's book, How Stella Learned to Talk, includes the story of Stella and Hunger's relationship, information on how Hunger introduced Stella to her soundboard, and tips and lessons to help pet owners get conversing with their own pups.
In an exclusive video for PEOPLE, Hunger demonstrates one of the first steps pet owners can take in teaching their pet talking skills: narrating your dog's actions using short, simple phrases.
In the above video guide, Hunger says to Stella such words as "walk," "come outside," "water," and "play play play" while Stella is doing those actions.
After narrating your pet's action for some time, Hunger says the next step in building a conversational relationship with your pet is to program a few recordable buttons with simple words that your pet hears every day — like the words you have been using to narrate your pet's actions.
Hunger says the first words pet parents teach their furry friends should be "motivating, frequently occurring, and simple for both you and your dog" and recommends placing the buttons either near their respective locations or all together on one board. Whichever spot, keep them in the same place, so your pet can learn the location of each word, "similar to how we learn the locations of keys on a keyboard," she says.
Next, when talking to your pet, press on the buttons yourself as a way to model what your pup can do, too, Hunger says. If they don't respond immediately, don't give up.
Hunger displays a lot of patience in her videos; she might repeat words once, but then she spends time watching and waiting for Stella's next move.
Stella started out communicating with just one word, "outside," which she learned at three months old. Now three years old, Stella knows 48 words and can combine up to five words into short phrases or sentences, Hunger says.
Hunger recently taught Stella new question words like "where," "when," "who," and "what"; time words like "soon"; body parts including "tail," "paw," "belly," and "head" and even such prepositions as "on" and "off."
Stella also recently surprised Hunger with her understanding of language. Hunger is now based in suburban Chicago, where she moved to this winter from San Diego with her husband, Jake. Stella immediately noticed the change in the weather at the family's new home.
The dog, who had never encountered such a wintery scene before, went outside and saw snow for the first time. She then went to her soundboard and said, "water outside," Hunger says.
"I was freaking out," she says of the moment. "It was another generalization of water."
She hopes her book serves as a point of inspiration for more research and leads pets and their owners to amazing moments like this.
"The more people try with other species, the more we'll learn," she says. "This shows there's so much we have to explore in interspecies communication."
RELATED VIDEO: Cat Presses Button to Ask for More Pets
Hunger, who has stopped seeing speech-language pathology clients and is now focusing full-time on spreading the word about talking with animals, thinks the reason her story became such a phenomenon is because it showed what's possible in the realm of human-animal communication.
"It's answering the question that so many people have had for years," she says. "What is my dog saying and what are they trying to tell me?"
To learn more about Hunger and Stella's journey and how you can start talking with your pet, read How Stella Learned to Talk, out May 4.
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