‘I love you’: The incredible story of the talking dog
A few weeks into living in San Diego, we threw together a housewarming party. Jake and I hosted my friend Brissa who was visiting us for the weekend, a fun couple we met at a brewery in our neighborhood, a couple of Jake's old friends from high school who happened to live in the area, and a couple of Jake's coworkers.
It was a tight squeeze in our small apartment.
"So what are these … buttons you have all around your floor?" Jake's friend asked.
Another friend said he was curious, too.
Everyone stared at me, eager for an explanation.
Our friends in Omaha had heard me talking about teaching Stella to say words from the very beginning of my pursuit.
They understood me and my job and were not crazy surprised to see me trying to combine my two worlds together.
But now here I was, reminded that lining a living room floor with talking buttons is not something people see every day.
"Well, so, I'm a speech therapist and I wanted to see if Stella could learn to say words with these buttons." Silence.
"I work with a lot of kids who are nonverbal and use communication devices to talk. So I wondered if Stella could learn to use a communication device if she had one."
Brissa caught my eye and gave me an encouraging smile.
"They each say a different word," she chimed in.
"Right," I said."Like, outside, play, walk, eat."
I walked around the room, stepping on all the buttons to give a demonstration.
"So when Stella wants any of these things, she can tell us."
I braced myself for all kinds of questions and scepticism. But I did not receive any.
"Wait, this is so cool."
"That makes so much sense."
"My dog totally understands words and just waits for me to say them."
I sighed with relief. I was happy to find out that I was not coming across as completely crazy to these strangers and acquaintances.
My first impression on our new California friends was not shot. They were all so intrigued.
A couple of hours into the party, Stella woke up from her nap, said "play", and trotted into the circle showing off her toy to all these new friends.
The next day, we were about to leave to take a walk on the beach. Brissa went into our bedroom to change. Jake grabbed my hand, turned me toward him, and kissed me.
"Love you," Stella said.
We looked down to see Stella squeezing right in between our legs. She wagged her tail, looked up at us, with her ears turned straight back against her head. Her ears always went back like this when she was happy. She looked like a little otter.
"Aw, love you, Stella. We love you, too, girl."
Jake and I crouched down immediately. Stella licked our faces, smiled, and rolled over for a belly rub.
"Good girl, Stella. Good Stella, love you."
It was the first time she had ever said "love you" on her own. Any other time had been after I was modelling it for a bit while giving her belly rubs or scratches.
Stella had now officially used all 10 of her words independently.
I had always modelled "love you" during natural moments of connection with Stella, like a parent would with a child.
Parents say "I love you" to their baby or toddler while they are hugging or kissing their child, taking care of them, or are proud of them.
Parents do not explain the meaning of love to their baby first, quiz them on what it means, then accept it when the child says "I love you" to them. Children learn the social times and feelings associated with the words they hear.
So far, Stella had learned in the same way. She wanted to join in on the love and had a way to tell us.
I did not worry about whether "love you" meant the exact same thing to me as it did to Stella.
It's impossible to know if any single word evokes the identical feeling between multiple different people, much less humans and canines.
At the end of the weekend, Jake, Stella, and I dropped Brissa off at the airport.
Stella stood in the back seat, watching out the window as Brissa disappeared into the building.
When we returned to our apartment, Stella walked straight to the couch Brissa slept on. She sniffed the blankets and pillows she used, then said "bye", and looked up directly into my eyes.
"You're right, Stella. She went bye."
I chose to add six buttons with core words and a phrase for Stella: come, no, love you, help, bye, eat.
We told Stella to "come" all the time. I wanted her to be able to tell us "come" as well if we were in a different room.
We said "no" to Stella if she was chewing on a belonging of ours, or doing something we did not want her to do. Stella deserved the opportunity to tell us when we were doing something she does not like too.
Communication is a two-way street. Stella's comfort and happiness mattered to me. Jake and I always said "love you" when we cuddled with Stella, rubbed her belly, or kissed her head.
I wanted to give Stella the chance to express her affection to us, or to others, as well.
"Help" could be beneficial for Stella when she needed us to help her retrieve a stuck toy or even if something more serious happened.
Every time we left for work, we told Stella "bye" multiple times. Our leaving on weekdays was a routine for her now.
I wanted to give her a way to talk about that part of the day. And Stella already understood the word eat.
Before feeding her breakfast and dinner, we always said, "eat". Stella licked her lips and ran to her bowl.
Hopefully Stella could tell us when she wanted to eat breakfast and dinner instead of us completely creating the routines for her.
Maybe she was hungrier earlier in the day, or maybe she was not quite ready to eat when we put food in her dish. We could not know these answers until Stella had a way to tell us herself.
The remaining 20 per cent of vocabulary we use, the fringe words, are more specific. Play is an example of a core word. It can be used to talk about all toys and games, whereas ball or toy are fringe words.
I included one important fringe word to Stella's available vocabulary: walk. We took Stella on walks almost every night after dinner.
It was a highly motivating activity for Stella and a significant part of her day.
Like most dogs, Stella became so excited every time we asked if she wanted to go for a walk. She would bark, jump around in circles, and stalk me until I followed through by putting my shoes on, grabbing her leash, or finding my headphones.
She used every type of communication possible to tell me that she wanted to go for a walk. I wanted Stella to be able to request walks instead of having to wait for us to say one of her favourite words.
For now, I did not want to become caught up in the number of words Stella could say. I knew that with a good selection of vocabulary, she could likely communicate about most parts of her day by using core words.
I programmed six buttons for her new words and found spots for each button. I set "eat" down next to her food dish, and "bye" next to the front door.
I lined up "come", "no", "love you", and "help" on the floor in the living room next to our entertainment centre.
"Stella, come," I said verbally and pushed her new "come" button. Stella trotted over to me.
"Look, girl." I pointed to each of the four buttons.
"Now you can say, 'come', 'no', love you' and 'help'," I said while pushing one button at a time.
Stella stood next to me. She switched between licking my face and looking down at the buzzers.
After figuring out the best placement for her new buttons, I would always keep them in the same spot.
Stella would learn fastest if she didn't have to search for the word she needed every time she wanted to say something.
I saved the best word for last. It took me several tries of shouting "walk" into the blue buzzer to make the final "k" sound audible.
Stella came running over to me when she heard me saying one of her favourite words so many times in a row. When I finally recorded it just right, I placed the "walk" button under the hooks next to the front door where Stella's leash hung.
"Look, Stella, walk!" I pushed her button a couple of times in a row. Stella stood hovering over the buzzer.
She cocked her head to the left and to the right. She wagged her tail and looked back up to me.
"Are you excited, girl?" I crouched down to Stella's level. She licked me repeatedly and turned around to face her new button again.
Stella lifted her right paw, swatted down, and said, "walk", only one minute after I programmed it for her.
"Go for a walk? Okay, let's go."
Stella barked and smiled at me while she watched me put my shoes on and grab my headphones.
"Walk," I said one more time verbally and with her button. "Let's go."
It was fascinating to see such a clear difference in her reactions between all her other vocabulary words and "walk".
Stella did not push any of the other words right away, not even "eat". She stood near me while I modelled them, but they did not capture her attention like "walk" had. Seeing her so excited to push it made me wonder if she had ever wished for the ability to say "walk" before I programmed it for her.
The next day, Jake and I sat down at the dinner table, exhausted from our days at work. I brushed the piles of mail, papers, and clutter down to a chair to make room for our plates.
Stella was lying down in the living room chomping on a chew toy. I was ready to relax with a nice, calm dinner and a glass of wine.
We made it through about two minutes of our meal when we heard, "walk, walk, walk, walk". Stella poked her head around the corner, checking to see our reaction to her request.
"No walk now, Stella. We're eating." I laughed.
Stella maintained eye contact with me, then barked. "I hear you, Stella. We'll go for a walk later!" Stella disappeared from our view.
A few seconds later we heard, "walk, walk," followed by a bark.
"It's her second day being able to say 'walk'. She's so excited! Should we take her now and finish eating when we get back?" I asked.
Jake chuckled. "Of course, she had to choose now to say a new word a bunch of times. Let's go."
After three days of having seven new words, Stella started saying "walk" all throughout the day without any cueing from us at all.
I knew she liked walks, but I had no idea how often she wanted to take them. I noticed that Stella started saying "outside" less often after we introduced "walk".
She still said "outside" when she needed to go to the bathroom, but this change in frequency made me wonder if some of the times Stella had been saying "outside" she was wanting to go for a walk.
TIPS FOR TEACHING YOUR DOG TO TALK
- Narrate what's happening in your dog's environment by saying single words and short phrases. Talk about what your dogs is doing or what is about to happen.
- Be repetitive. Aim to say a word at lease five to 10 times before moving on to something else.
- Program words into our device that are frequently occurring and relevant to your dog's daily life. Remember a more general word like play will be more valuable and frequently occurring than the name of a specific toy.
- Turn your dog's typical activities into teachable moments. Before you take your dog outside, god for a walk, feed her, play with her, replenish water, or give belly rubs, take a momentto say what you are doing multiple times,
- Use verbal speech and your dogs buttons to talk to your dog. Every time you use your dogs buttons to say a word you are modelling appropriate use of it for her.
- Teach more than one word to start. Greater exposure leads to greater learning.
- Be on the lookout for small changes in how your dog interacts with the buttons, responds to you and communicates. Your dog will probably not learnt this method over night.
This is an edited extract from How Stella Learned to Talk by Christina Hunger, Allen & Unwin, $33, Out May 18.
Originally published as 'I love you': Incredible story of the talking dog