I’m sure you’ve heard about the studies in which chimps/apes are brought up from birth by humans and taught to ‘talk’ through sign language and other means. It’s not a big surprise that other primates close to us on the evolutionary scale can learn to communicate in a fairly sophisticated, ‘human’ way.
But I just read about a woman who trained her dog to do roughly the same thing! I am so excited! This dog, Stella, has learned to communicate in words AND sentences by touching buttons that signify specific words on a soundboard. To me, this is the coolest thing ever! I’ve always known that my dogs had complex thoughts running through their heads but just had no way to share them with me.
Now, don’t get too excited – you won’t be able to teach your significant canine to do this. It’s not for amateurs. The lady who helped Stella master language is Christina Hunger and she is a speech-language pathologist who has vast experience working with children who have speech-language deficits. Many of these kids need ‘ linguistic technology’ to communicate, like modified computers, flashcards, soundboards, etc. So she’s an expert at creating and using these tools.
Christina got Stella, a Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix, at eight weeks old and started to train her immediately. She set up a soundboard with buttons for the words she wanted Stella to use. At eighteen months now, Stella knows 29 words and can tell her mom and dad her thoughts. She can even combine words into sentences of up to five words. Human babies usually can’t speak in phrases and sentences initially and have to master individual words first.
Stella can ask for walks, playtime or a trip to the beach. She can communicate emotions, like anxiety, as well. One day, she heard a noise outside and pressed ‘look’ nine times and then ‘come outside’! Another time Stella was whining at the front door and Christina assumed that Stella wanted to go out. But Stella went to her board and tapped out ‘want’ ‘Jake’ (Christina’s fiancé who lives with them) and ‘come’. Stella then planted herself in front of the door until Jake came home. Then, to Christina’s amazement, Stella pressed ‘happy’ and assumed the position for a belly rub!
Stella recently started using both paws on the board and she appears to be developing the turn-taking skills of conversation, like answering questions. This also develops in children only after they are able to say words and phrases on their own. Here’s an example:
Stella: ‘Stella’, ‘bye’, ‘play’
Jake: ‘Where do you want to play? We’ll eat now then play’.
Stella: 15-20 second pause. Then, ‘eat’, ‘eat’, ‘park’. This indicates that she understood the sequence of eating first and then playing. Remarkable.
Another big advance in Stella’s communication skills is her mastery of time. She can now talk about something that just happened, not just what she wants now. After she eats, she’ll press ‘eat’ and after coming back from the park, she’ll press ‘park’ as if she’s trying to tell Jake where she just went. This implies a more sophisticated concept of language. To test this, Christina added an ‘all done’ button for Stella to signify something that happened in the past. And Stella used it after a walk!
In addition, Stella originally could use only single words, like a human infant. Then she started using short phrases once or twice a week. Now she uses as many word combinations each day as single words so her skills are improving along the lines of a human baby.
I’m sure that Christina devoted a huge amount of time to training Stella and that most average people couldn’t duplicate her experiment at home. But it’s still wonderful to know that our dogs are capable of understanding more human language than we thought and when given the opportunity, they can use it to talk back to us. I’m beyond thrilled that much of the anthropomorphism of my dogs is warranted and backed up by science!
You can follow Stella on Christina’s blog at HungerForWords.com.