Stella the Talking Dog Is Using Her Soundboard to Speak About Social Distancing: 'Park Want'
Living under California's shelter-in-place order had Stella anxious at first, but now she is adjusting to more time inside with her doting owners
Being cooped up, not able to get out to our favorite places, a disconcerting change in routine … the nationwide closures caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is taking a toll on many of us, even, it seems, renowned “talking dog,” Stella.
And as usual, the pup is putting her feelings into words.
As her time outside has been curtailed because of stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19 concerns, Stella has been using her soundboard to convey how much she is missing some of her favorite places like beaches and parks, communicating such phrases as:
“Where where where where park?”
“Help water play love you.”
“Look park beach want.”
“Park love you.”
Stella’s owner, Christina Hunger, 26, tells PEOPLE that the 2-year-old Catahoula/blue heeler mix had appeared “bummed out” during the first few weeks of the shelter-in-place restrictions in their home state of California.
“At first she was very panicked,” Hunger says. “She would start whining, start pacing around. She was very confused about why she couldn’t go out.”
Hunger, who lives with her fiancé, Jake McConkey, in San Diego, said that while Stella still goes outside for walks, she can no longer romp around the beach and park since those and other public places were closed on March 23.
Understandably, Stella has not been pleased with the change of plans and “was asking for the beach and the park all day, every day,” Hunger says.
Hunger relayed a recent two-way conversation in which the pooch expressed her displeasure.
Hunger: “No beach, sorry Stella. Want to go for a walk?”
Stella: “Mad” (pause) “Park want.”
Hunger: “No park, Stella. Want to go for a walk? Or want play inside?”
Stella responded by sighing, then laying down in front of the door with her back to them, Hunger says.
Hunger says she told Stella what was happening by tapping out phrases such as, “no more water,” “no more beach,” and “all done park,” but had a trickier time explaining why.
“I don’t know that she would understand that a pandemic was happening,” Hunger says. “At first it felt like a communication breakdown. It was hard. There’s only so much you can explain to them in that moment,” and noted the Stella likely comprehends language at the level of a 2-year-old child.
Hunger decided to take Stella to the beach to show her the gates blocking the entrance. “I’m hoping that helps her understand more,” she says. “She sees we can’t walk through there.”
As time has passed in this era of quarantines and isolations, Stella seems to have rebounded and stopped asking as frequently to head out to her beloved spots.
“She’s kind of learned our new routine and seems happier than before,” Hunger says. “She’s happier to play inside and happier to go on walks.”
One thing she’s still getting used to is how much time she’s been spending together with Hunger and McConkey, who are now both working from home.
She even seems to be craving some “me time.”
“Now that we’re home all day, she’s tired. She used to sleep a lot during the day. She’s missing some of her alone time and she wants the peace and quiet for herself,” Hunger says. “For the first time she didn’t want to walk with us. She told US to go outside!”
Stella’s antics have been captivating the world since her story appeared on PEOPLE’s website last November and then went viral.
Stella “speaks” by stepping on buttons that emit words that were pre-recorded by Hunger and McConkey. The buttons are attached to a simple custom soundboard made of plywood and set on the floor.
Hunger, a speech-language pathologist, modeled the soundboard after augmentative and alternative communication devices she employs in her job helping toddlers communicate.
Stella started out learning just one word (“outside”) and is now up to 39 words, which she can combine into phrases to express her thoughts, feelings and even abstract concepts, says Hunger, who is chronicling the adventure on her blog, Hunger for Words and Instagram.
Hunger also is writing a book about her experience and methodology and will update her followers about the publication date. “I’m very excited for it to come out,” she says. “I have so much information to share…there’s so much potential. We’re just getting started.”
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